The sudden and saddening loss of Tyler Hilinski, a bright young man who happened to play quarterback for the Washington State Cougars, has opened up the discussion about depression and suicide across traditional sports forums all across the media landscape.
Football players are by no means the only segment of society who suffer from depression and suicide. The prevalence of this problem and the stigmas that prevent it from being discussed out in the open are probably the same among that segment as it is across all of society.
But it is particularly difficult for those of us in this sports culture to acknowledge the elephant in the room. While it is really easy for us to talk and mourn when cancer or heart disease strikes one of our own, we seem to struggle to do the same when depression advances to the point where it results in the end of life. This despite the fact that, according to the Journal of Pediatrics, the rate of young people experiencing Major Depressive Episodes (MDEs) has grown by an alarming 37% over the last decade.
Just like any other disease, depression and suicidal tendencies cannot be treated or helped if we can’t talk about it out in the open. UW’s own Isaiah Woods (Renfro) brought this issue to our attention in the spring of 2016 when the talented wide receiver left college football in order to manage his own challenges with mental health.
Been debating on posting this but this is me taking steps in the right direction to becoming myself again.. pic.twitter.com/ptE1k9oKKJ— Isaiah Woods (@WaveGodZay) May 29, 2016
The power to discuss issues such as anxiety, depression and suicide is the power to help those who may be on a terminal path. Woods provides an example of that power. Not only did he take the courageous step of walking away from football in order to face his challenges, but he carried forth on the mission to pay it forward. Last December, Woods was a guest of Megyn Kelly on NBC’s TODAY show to discuss his own journey
I know that many of you don’t come to this site for this kind of article. I can appreciate that. If you want to move on to the next story, you’ll get no judgement from me. But for me to let this moment pass without raising the issue seems, at best, tone deaf and, at worst, irresponsible.
This is incredibly personal for me. My wife, Jenny Landon, wrote a book called “Growing Through Grief” and has started a non-profit with a mission to help those in need. The Lotus Project is focused specifically on ending the stigma that surrounds the issues of mental health and suicide in order to help people in need and to save lives.
In the wake of the loss of Tyler Hilinski, I asked Jenny to put together some of her thoughts on how to think about addressing and discussing these heart-wrenching situations so that some good can come from such pain. What follows is her own work.
Making Sense Out of the Unimaginable
by Jenny Landon
Executive Director, The Lotus Project (theLotusProject.org)
Author, “Growing Through Grief”
It was only a few months ago that Tyler Hilinski was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates. His teammates who clearly loved him and saw him as the kind of person who would do anything for his friends and family. I didn’t know Tyler, but from what I’ve read, he was the kind of son, brother, and friend that anyone would be blessed to have in their lives.
So how is it that someone who seemed to have everything going his way could die by suicide?
This question weighed heavy on my heart last Wednesday morning prompting me to sit down with my two girls, Kaeli and Grace, who are 14 and 11. I shared with them who Tyler was and how their dad, who’s travelling for work, had called the night before to share the sad news of Tyler’s passing. Both of them were shocked and I could see the heartfelt compassion and concern in their eyes as they each asked, “But, why? Why would he die by suicide?”
“Why” is a question that often arises when we lose a loved one to suicide. For those who’ve lost a loved one who had been visibly distressed by an ongoing battle with depression the shock and pain is still intense and overwhelming, but somewhat comprehensible. For those who lose a loved one to suicide when there were no apparent signs of depression, the question “why” can eat at their soul.
At the age of 20 I lost my dad to suicide. Five years later I experienced my own suicidal state as a result of postpartum depression. Having open discussions about suicide and mental health is not new to our household, so rather than answering Kaeli and Grace’s question I asked them if they knew why someone would die by suicide. Their answers included, “Maybe someone was mean to him. Maybe he didn’t feel like he was good enough. Maybe he had depression. Maybe he was really sad about something.”
I commended them for putting such thought into their answers, and reminded them that while many people who die by suicide have struggled with depression, it’s not clear that every suicide is the result of depression. I then asked them if they knew the one critical aspect that I believe is involved in every suicide.
After allowing them to think for a moment I then asked, “Have you ever felt like you weren’t good enough? Have you ever had someone be so mean to you that you were consumed by the pain?”
They both nodded and I continued with, “So, what was the difference between you and the person who died by suicide? How is it possible that you’ve experienced such pain and heartache and yet you didn’t die by suicide?”
It didn’t take Kaeli long to say, “They died because their brain was sick.”
In an effort to help my daughters process the loss of their grandfather and to fully understand the struggles I’ve faced I’ve done my best to raise them with an understanding that those who struggle with depression and those who die by suicide have experienced an illness that has impacted their brain. This illness, regardless of whether it was long-term or a sudden onset, prevents a person from being able to make healthy and rational decisions. Suicide is the result of someone experiencing an attack on their brain that leads to their death.
This morning as we sat at the kitchen table speaking about depression and suicide I could sense an uncertainty forming in Grace’s eyes. I asked her what she was thinking and she said, “What if that happens to my brain?”
I wrapped my arms around her and said, “I wish I could tell you that your brain will never get sick, and hopefully we know enough about healthy prevention that it won’t. But if I’m being honest, it’s better that I tell you that if your brain does get sick, then your dad and I will be here to help you get better. It’s important that you listen to your body and that you’re aware of your thoughts. If you start to feel like you’re going into a dark place, even if you don’t understand why, then you have to let us know.”
I then shared with Kaeli and Grace how I had recently received a phone call from a dear friend. She was fairly shaken up and needed someone to talk to. She told me that she had come home from work to find her 10-year-old son crying. This was extremely out of character for him. She was used to him being full of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm for life.
She held him in her arms and asked him what was wrong. Through tears he said, “When I’m really stressed out, all I can think about is killing myself. I’m scared I’m going to hurt myself with one of dad’s guns.”
My friend shared with me that she sat with him and talked about what he was feeling. They discussed his fears and she thanked him for being brave enough to share those fears with her. They then devised a plan to help him manage his stress and how to best monitor and communicate his feelings of suicide.
Kaeli and Grace were surprised to learn that someone they had always known to be outgoing, smart, funny, and incredibly kind could get overwhelmed and feel suicidal. That’s when I reminded them how important it is that they always turn to people they trust and why it’s critical that we learn to speak openly about our struggles.
It’s an unfortunate truth that suicide carries with it a stigma of shame. A stigma that can only be removed by changing the way we speak and think about depression and suicide. If we want to see change, we have to start recognizing the illness involved and stop seeing suicide as a choice. We have to start speaking openly about our brokenness and be willing to look at all avenues of healing.
As a community of family, friends, and fans grieve for Tyler I would encourage everyone to take a moment and think about who he was to you. Remember him for how he lived his life and honor his memory by sharing stories of what you loved most about him. An illness robbed Tyler from those who loved him most. I’m asking you to not allow the stigma of that illness to rob anyone from the reality of who he was.
My thoughts and prayers are with Tyler’s family, friends and all who have been impacted by this sudden loss.
If you or anybody you know are contending with the kinds of struggles that Jenny discusses above, I encourage you to take one step forward. Call a friend. Connect to a forum in social media. Dial up a hotline. Read a magazine article or a book (and if you are interested in Jenny’s book but can’t afford it, email me and I’ll send you one). Visit www.TheLotusProject.org and find resources that you can access.
Follow Isaiah Woods’ example and just take that one extra step towards help.
Thank you for reading and God bless.