Last Tuesday, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski was found dead in his off-campus apartment. Next to the 21-year-old’s body were a rifle and a suicide note.
No matter the age, no matter the socioeconomic status, there is no group unaffected by suicide, and it’s a tragedy every time. But the rising college football star’s story is particularly attention-grabbing.
Not that the instance should come as too much of a surprise: College athletes are facing a serious mental health crisis. Now more than ever, sports teams must be able to look past the power rankings or stats of their star players. Now more than ever, sports teams must be able to look past stigmas associated with mental illness.
Surely this goes without saying, but being a college student poses enough challenges as it is. Moving away from home, forming new social circles and deciding on a potential career path all weigh heavily on a person’s emotional well-being ; add on the pressures of pleasing coaches, fans and recruiters, and dire mental health struggles are almost to be expected.
Much of the problem lies in the fact that athletes, above others, are expected to prioritize physical strength over mental strength; on the football field or on the basketball court, it’s matter over mind. In a highly competitive league, students — many on scholarships — cannot miss a beat. Mental illnesses are not as tangible as shot percentages or muscle mass, so little attention is paid.
According to the University of Michigan School of Public Health, 33 percent of all college students show “significant” signs of mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. Of those, 30 percent seek help. For student athletes, the number is drastically lower: a staggering 10 percent.
To make the problem worse, the 10 percent brave enough to voice their health issues have a hard time finding an ear to listen. Many struggling athletes don’t even have a mental health professional within their departments. According to a May/June 2017 journal published by Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, only 20.5 percent of surveyed athletic trainers reported that they had a mental health provider for students in the training room. As a result, many students are forced to travel off campus, and at times travel considerable distances, to find support. Put simply, this is a serious blow to one’s courage, and such apathy cannot be tolerated any longer.
In this regard, universities like Oregon State are making commendable efforts to turn concerned dialogue into action. For instance, OSU recently began the #DamWorthIt campaign, which aims to place mental health needs into the forefront of university discussion surrounding athletics. The movement also calls attention to the university’s existing services for athletes, such as its nationally recognized Counseling and Psychological services staff. In the future, similarly sports-centric universities must follow suit and exercise this level of introspection and dedication to their own athletes.
Having played competitive ice hockey for most of my life, I can understand why it may be intimidating to speak with a coach about such heavy personal issues. Don’t get me wrong — I was far from being Division 1-bound, and the only fan I needed to impress was my mother. That said, at any competition level, players must grapple with the feeling that they always need to please their coaches. Personally, I never felt comfortable telling my coach — the person who constantly picked apart my drill run-throughs in practice and sat me on the bench whenever I made a bad play — that I struggled with anxiety on the ice. Considering the situation at an elite playing level, taboos like that are unspeakable.
That toxic mentality is beginning to change, though — even if it is at a snail’s pace. After Hilinski’s death, former Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe posted a picture of Hilinski with the caption: “Reaching out for help when we need it is NOT a sign of weakness. Trusting your friends and asking for help is the ultimate sign of STRENGTH!! If we sprain an ankle we go see a doctor. If we’re struggling emotionally we have to learn to treat it the same way.” While the reality behind the sentiment is undeniably heartbreaking, the tone of the message reflects an uplifting movement toward progress: The sports world is beginning to realize the need to talk about these issues, rather than push them under the rug.
In its entirety, the recent mental health crisis in collegiate athletics should be regarded as nothing less than an epidemic. If we truly want athletes to receive the help they need, we must stop placing them on a pedestal above their human capabilities. Even the shiniest gold medals can weigh a person down if they’re heavy enough. In those cases, supporters can’t just cheer from the sidelines — they need to step in and support players through their struggles with advocacy for reform. Athletes’ lives might just depend on it.
Ryan Fawwaz is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.