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Let’s not be afraid to talk about Tyler Hilinski

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There will be lots of references to mental health this weekend. Remember the person whose death brought it to the fore.

This was Tyler Hilinski as you knew him — a talented, daring quarterback for your favorite team, the Washington State Cougars:

But this was Tyler Hilinksi as those closest to Tyler knew him. As a brother:

“Tyler’s just one of those kids that would never stop working hard,” Ryan Hilinski said. “And I know he worked so hard to be where he was before his life ended. I’m just super proud of him because I know our family was super proud of him and he just tried to make us happy and not be a burden on us. So mostly what Tyler was was just a joyful kid, never had a bad day, and we love him for it.”

As a son:

“Tyler was perfect: funny, happy, sweet, kind,” Kym Hilinski said.

Tyler HIlinski lived for nearly 22 years. It was a life filled with the kinds of things that lives well lived are filled with.

WSU would like you to not think too much about all of that this weekend, solely because of the manner in which Tyler’s life ended. Upon the recommendation of an organization that advises institutions in these situations, WSU is hoping everyone will just not talk much about the quarterback who died by suicide in January,

There will be general talk about mental health in the form of PSAs; there will be the number 3 on the backs of WSU’s helmets; Tyler’s family will be in attendance to raise the Cougar flag before the game; there will be references to Hilinski’s Hope, the foundation that bears Tyler’s name; there will be 10 or 15 seconds of highlights of Tyler in the “Back Home” video.

There will be lots of things that all sort of vaguely point back to Tyler. But there won’t be a lot of talk about Tyler himself. And I think that’s precisely the wrong way to approach this.

WSU has said it is afraid of other students being impulsively moved to end their own lives if Tyler is made too much of a focus of the proceedings — what’s known as “contagion” in psychology circles. Again, this is on the recommendation of the JED Foundation, which has guidelines for avoiding suicide “clusters,” in which multiple suicides can take place in close proximity in a brief period of time. WSU says it is operating out of an abundance of caution, based on data and research.

Beyond the fact that the science behind “clusters” isn’t really ironclad* — every situation is unique, and not every situation that contains risk factors produces a “cluster” — even if we assume that WSU had been at risk for a cluster in the wake of Tyler’s death, there’s little data to back up the idea that the student body at WSU is at any risk for one now. It’s been nine months since Tyler died; clusters are defined as coming within an “accelerated time frame,” generally accepted as six months. A WSU psychologist made reference to one other suicide on campus after second semester last year; however, it’s hard to fathom how one death, five to six months later and with no apparent connection to Tyler, could be used by a clinician as evidence against talking about Tyler, since there was plenty of media coverage of Tyler’s death back in January. And when that same psychologist pointed to a spike in suicides after the death of Robin Williams in 2014, she neglected to mention that this particular case bears virtually nothing in common with that one other than both individuals ended their own lives.

*Consider the curious case of Kurt Cobain.

It’s possible WSU is motivated purely by this fear. But the effect is that Tyler himself is being shoved to the corner as if he is an inconvenient piece of furniture that doesn’t quite match the rest of the living room anymore.

Might I suggest that it’s time — as Hilinski’s Hope also suggests — to start approaching all of this differently? I respect the earnest work done by the JED Foundation, but here’s the bottom line: Suicide rates in the United States have been steadily climbing for 20 years, increasing a mind-boggling 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. What we’re doing isn’t working. None of it is actually working.

Maybe what we do instead is take opportunities where the risk for clusters is minimal and say to ourselves: Let’s talk about this. Let’s not dance around what happened. Let’s approach it head on with the full complement of resources that can also be deployed simultaneously. Show pictures of the Tyler on the video board. Say his name. Begin your first offensive series with 10 players on the field. And at each turn, make sure people know exactly where they can find resources to help themselves if they are in need. Maybe even point them to ways to donate to Hilinski’s Hope so that the foundation can continue to work to reverse the trend of increasing suicides.

This isn’t about deifying someone or glorifying suicide. It’s about remembering Tyler for who he was: A young man with flaws, yes ... but also an actual person with an actual life surrounded by actual people who loved and cherished him — hundreds of whom will be in attendance on Saturday, to say nothing of the thousands and thousands who also connected with him over the small sliver of his world they shared on Saturdays.

We’re a Coug family. The Hilinskis are part of that. This is how families take care of each other.

So, for goodness sake, let’s not discard Tyler. Let’s talk about Tyler and the lasting positive impact his death can have.

Because, as his family is fond of saying — there is no Hilinski’s Hope without Tyler.

And remember:

If you feel like you are suffering in silence, 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.