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On Tyler Hilinksi’s death, and battling depression

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It’s easier to hide mental illness than you probably think. And while being kind to one another is good, doing more is better.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Holiday Bowl - Washington St v Michigan St Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been both heartwarming and heartbreaking to watch the outpouring of love from the Washington State University community and beyond in the days since Tyler Hilinski took his own life. Thousands upon thousands of people expressing love for a young man who, in most cases, they had never met. “If he only knew,” many have asked, and that makes it even more tragic.

In my case, Tyler’s death has hit me harder than I expected. I was away on work in Chicago the day it happened, and I got the news while I was at a friend’s house. I gave them the details, they understood the gravity of the situation, but eventually I spared them from further conversation on the topic.

As I ventured back to my hotel room, I was glued to social media, watching the WSU world react. Every tweet brought tears, every picture of a smiling Tyler was a shot to the heart. I couldn’t help but think of Tyler’s parents, who would never see their son again, the unimaginable pain they must feel. My thoughts drifted to my two-month-old baby girl—it was the first night we were apart. I wanted to hold her, see her smile, feel the rhythm of her breathing.

The second night I cried more—triggered strangely enough by a beer label from Drie Fonteinen Brewery. Drie means three in Dutch, and the bottle featured a prominent number “3.” I drank that beer.

Part of the sadness that I, and many others, have derived from Tyler’s death originates at what we assume was a severe struggle with depression he faced. By all accounts, that struggle was silent—he was all smiles, all jokes, among the happiest guys on the WSU football team.

While it’s natural to be shocked by the fact that even those closest to Tyler don’t recall seeing warning signs of his depression, those who have experienced mental health challenges know hiding the disease is often the easy part.

Six years ago, I attended grad school at the University of Vermont. I was challenging myself, seeking a degree in an area that was about as far away from my previous studies as one could get. To succeed, I needed to assert myself, to study hard, to be completely focused.

As the school year went on, I found it increasingly difficult to do that. Eventually, I was in a place where it wouldn’t make sense to go back the next year.

Depression can be a product of a lot of things—maybe a series of stressful events that weigh on a person so much that it eventually changes the way their mind processes. For me, I made two big moves in a two-year span. I went from a job where I had purpose, autonomy and authority to a new city that hadn’t found my previous experience all that interesting. There was unemployment and underemployment followed by jobs where I was undervalued, underpaid and unfulfilled. All while being far away from immediate family members who were dealing with their own problems.

By the time I made it to Vermont, emboldened by an assistantship that would pay my tuition, my mental health was far from ready to handle the rigors of grad school in an almost completely new (to me) subject.

I knew at some point that I didn’t feel right, after the excitement and newness of school wore off. I didn’t show it to anyone though—I was all smiles, all jokes and always willing to lend a helping hand. I never thought about committing suicide, but I did think about the act itself and felt more empathy for victims of suicide.

I didn’t keep it a secret forever, though. I had witnessed struggles with depression in my family and friends, and I knew there were ways to treat it. I finally told my girlfriend, then I called up the University of Vermont student health center and, through tears, made an appointment with a psychiatrist.

Anti-depressants and anxiety medications followed. The drugs helped, the counseling helped even more. Eventually things got easier. It’s a never-ending battle, but through treatment there become far more good days than bad days, and you learn how to retrain your brain to think in non-destructive ways.

For Tyler, that resolution never came. He never got to the point where he admitted to anyone what he was going through, even as he may have been planning the suicide for several days. Tyler bore all the burden of depression on himself, which is an impossible burden to bear.

One sentiment I’ve seen over and over again with suicide is that we should treat each other well, because we never know what someone else is going through. I don’t disagree with this, having endured plenty of bullying when I was younger. Treating others well is a goal to which everyone should strive. Unfortunately, with depression, there is much more that we need to do to prevent tragedies on the level of Tyler’s death.

We have to look broader, and ask why Tyler felt the need to keep his struggle from those around him. It’s something that is repeated, but still has yet to really take hold: There is a stigma around mental illness, and it makes it very difficult for those suffering to come forward and get treated.

I know this: I hid my depression for years. First, by trying to convince myself that it didn’t exist. Then, failing that, trying to convince others. I think I was pretty good at the latter, because the idea of silently suffering sounded far better than being pegged as someone with mental illness or forcing my problems onto others. I didn’t even tell my immediate family until years after my diagnosis and treatment. It’s likely Tyler felt the same way, and that’s why those close to him are finding it hard to explain the tragedy.

So, yes, be nice to people. Always be nice to people.

But also do more.

If you’ve suffered from depression, don’t be afraid to share. I know it’s hard. This was hard to write; it took me a week to summon up the courage. I hope it helps in some way, though, to tell my personal story, and the more people that do, the better. If you are currently suffering silently, please seek help. Reach out to someone you love, reach out to a mental health professional or even reach out to me if you don’t know where else to go (my e-mail is in the masthead).

If you haven’t dealt with depression and find it hard to comprehend how suicide is even possible, do some research and find your way to an understanding. Read about mental illness, talk to those around you who have suffered (more than you realize).

Eventually, you’ll discover that depression is illogical, and that suicide can’t be a selfish act when the victim is waging a war with common sense itself. A depressed person’s view on many things won’t align with what is obvious in a healthy mind. Severe depression cannot be treated by simple friendliness—the sufferer needs help, because their own brain is working against them.

Creating an environment where the depressed feel safe to speak about their struggles and seek help requires effort from everyone. Education on mental health, its causes and symptoms are important, as is access to mental health services. I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that information is powerful and can change both thoughts and actions.

If we never want another family to go through what the Hilinski family has had to endure, if we never want another person to bear the burden that Tyler carried on his own, we have to change the way we approach mental illness. There must be no stigma, because the stigma is actively hurting those afflicted.

If you feel like you are suffering from depression, tell someone and don’t be afraid to seek out help. It can get better. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.