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In the wake of Tyler Hilinski’s death, WSU must do more

The Cougars need a concrete, innovative plan for helping student-athletes suffering from mental illness.

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Washington State v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Spring football has commenced at WSU, which means the death of Tyler Hilinski is back to the front of the mind as a handful of hopeful quarterbacks vie for the privilege to fill the spot vacated by their deceased teammate.

The tone of interviews, as would be expected of the first practices heading toward a new season, is of hope and optimism. At this point, you won’t find a whole lot of deep reflection on Tyler’s absence.

In response to a question about what, if anything, he plans to do differently during this year’s spring practices in the wake of Tyler’s death, WSU coach Mike Leach said, simply, “Next question.”

I’m sure Leach has his reasons for not wanting to talk anymore about Hilinski, his death, and how it continues to impact his team going forward. After all, Leach never talks about injuries, and he spends an inordinate amount of effort avoiding discussing much of anything else of substance as it relates to his team. I get that.

But it’s as if the process of forgetting about Hilinski has already started.

I can’t say I like it.

In the week or so immediately following Tyler’s death, the outpouring of grief included an incredible amount of focus on the role that mental health plays in the lives of college students in general, and college athletes in particular.

It’s only natural; when in a crisis, humans have a tendency to want to feel like they are doing something when, in fact, there usually is practically nothing truly meaningful to be done.

So people said things about what a wonderful person Tyler was, how he was the most popular guy on the team, how there really were no signs that anything like this was possible, and gosh we just have to do a better job going forward of helping these kids through their tough times. This is what we do, even though it won’t bring Tyler back.

(Side note: I know this well, having had a child diagnosed with cancer before his third birthday, which he went on to beat over the next three years without a lot of tangible help from me. But we sure did do a great job raising money for Make-A-Wish, something that made me feel a little better, even if it had no bearing on my own child’s health.)

I went to the vigil for Tyler. I stood with the hundreds of others holding candles, if only to say to his parents in some very small way, “your son mattered,” because I would start to break down a little thinking about what it would be like if it was my son whose skull ended up on the wrong end of a rifle whose trigger he inexplicably pulled himself. I watched Tyler’s teammates hold each other, and sob. I saw the young man standing across the way, holding up the suicide prevention awareness sign.

The prevailing sentiment that night was: Never again.

It’s now been two months and nine days since that vigil, and I’m wondering: What, exactly, is WSU doing to make “never again” as close to reality as possible?

French Ad and Bohler have been quiet on the topic. Pretty much everything we know about what’s being done at the moment comes from this Cougfan piece, published three weeks ago.

However, that story is fairly limited in scope, focusing generally on how the football team is recovering from the trauma of Hilinski’s death. Unfortunately absent is any substantive talk of meaningful change to WSU’s general approach to student-athlete mental wellness going forward — not just for football players, but for all student-athletes.

As such, I’m calling on WSU president Kirk Schulz and athletics director Pat Chun to unveil an overhauled comprehensive mental health and wellness program for athletics before the next academic year.

Despite the freshness of the issue at WSU, this is hardly a new frontier in college athletics. Less than three months prior to Hilinski’s death, The Ringer looked at this very topic, using the story of Madison Holleran as the backdrop. Holleran was a runner and soccer player at the University of Pennsylvania who ended her own life almost exactly four years before Tyler. Many living athletes have opened up about their own struggles with mental illness. The NCAA has published guidelines for student-athlete mental health and wellness.

And yet, it seems not much practical-level progress has been made at universities, and certainly not at WSU. Because let’s go ahead and be blunt: If the processes WSU had in place were good enough as they were, I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

I don’t know exactly what the solutions are — I’m certainly not an expert in the field — but here’s what I do know: WSU has an opportunity to be a leader in this area, a model for other institutions. Ideally, that would include teaming up with Hilinski’s Hope, something that would have the added benefit of keeping Tyler’s memory alive at the school that he loved, and which loved him back. It also would help his family continue to heal, since having a a tragedy mean something can have a profound impact on overcoming grief. (Again, I can speak to this.)

Whatever it is, it needs to go beyond raising awareness and being available. Those things are great, and I don’t want to minimize initiatives such as Oregon State’s #DamWorthIt. That needs to be a component of the plan, and I think it’s fantastic that students are the ones leading the way on that campus. But, frankly, the universities need to be more invasive than that — the school actively tracks athletes’ physical well beings, and the same attitude needs to be taken with regards to mental well being.

Additionally, WSU should make available a channel for direct financial support of student-athlete mental health services. If a fan feels compelled to donate to this cause rather than the general CAF, they should be able to do that directly. And any donation given to the school in Tyler’s name — which I know has been happening since Tyler’s death — should be sent that way, also, rather than ending up in the general scholarship fund.

I fully recognize the “remembering Tyler” portion of this is a bit tricky for WSU to some degree, given the circumstances of Tyler’s death. There’s certainly a stigma around suicide, and there’s always the question of the degree to which someone who took their own life should be memorialized.

As an institution, WSU is in the somewhat uncomfortable position of acknowledging that Tyler’s death happened on their watch while also continuing to tell parents, “we’ll take care of your kid.” The school certainly isn’t to blame for Tyler’s death. However, it’s possible to say both that Tyler died of his own mental illness and that WSU as an institution can do better.

WSU cannot simply deal with the immediate fallout of Tyler’s death and then wash its hands of it and go back to business as normal with some stickers on helmets.

We can — we must — do better.

President Schulz, Mr. Chun ... it’s time to step up.