SEATTLE — Jenna Moser and the Washington Huskies women’s basketball team were in Pullman on Jan. 16 when Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide.
The news that Hilinski, a 21-year-old junior who was poised to be the Cougars’ starter in the fall, would suddenly take his own life shook Moser and her teammates.
“That was a wake-up call for a lot of people,” Moser said. “You do realize everyone is aware of (suicide) to an extent, but to know how scary it can be? It’s pushed to the back of our minds. … To have that happen, especially as we were in Pullman, it was something that we all learned to appreciate each other as teammates.”
And while the Hilinski incident took place on the other side of the state, Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen realized the implications on her campus. She said it was the impetus for the school to have seminars with student-athletes about mental health.
“I didn’t sleep for a week just thinking about him,” Cohen said. “I’m a mother of two sons. Thinking about our student-athletes. Thinking about other students, knowing how big an issue mental health is on college campuses today. Athletes or not, it’s an epidemic. The numbers are staggering.”
Suicide is the second-highest cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15-to-24, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
The American College Counseling Association reported in 2015 that 42.4 percent of the 75,000 undergraduate students it surveyed experienced greater than average stress within the past 12 months. More than 35 percent of those surveyed stated they felt so depressed it was “difficult” for them to function.
Cohen said UW’s athletics administration met with a student leadership group and invited the school’s entire student-athlete base to talk about mental health. The discussion was held a little more than two weeks after Hilinski’s death.
She said the conversation was led by two on-campus sports psychologists, UW’s lead team physician and Dr. Ellen Taylor. Taylor is the assistant vice president for student life and the director of the counseling center.
“I think more than anything, I think what we all recognized was that awareness needs to continue,” Cohen said. “Awareness and creating cultures where kids can be vulnerable, coaches can be vulnerable and that we can all show our feelings and talk about things where we can feel safe, is the single-most important culture that we can create.”
Cohen said mental health is something that can impact anyone regardless of their financial, personal or professional situations.
She said college students and student-athletes are no different.
“I think what gets lost is because student-athletes entertain us and we have fun watching them is that they are students. Period.” Cohen said. “They have challenges like every other kid that’s 18-to-22. You think about what you went through when you went to college.
“Think about all the different ups and downs and pressures that you felt.”
Moser, for example, grew up in Colton, a small town of less than 500 people that’s about 14 miles north of Pullman. She was a two-time Class 1B Player of the Year, an honor she earned in her junior and senior seasons. Moser was also the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Athlete of the Year while leading Colton to four consecutive state titles.
She was 4.0 student who was also her school’s student body president, a National Honor Society member and lettered 12 times between basketball, softball and volleyball.
Coming to UW was a series of adjustments for Moser. She went from being the best player at her school to joining a team full of players with similar athletic backgrounds. Moser also needed time to adapt to her new coaches and teammates in addition to being a college student.
Then there was the social side. She was making new friends all while adjusting to a locale like Seattle having spent her life in a small, country town.
“You have to be organized and for me, it was helpful to have a team sport,” she said. “I cannot imagine if you’re in an individual sport where all that pressure is on you. You’re forming a list and making sure your priorities are always straight.”
Huskies men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins said he and his staff are always monitoring their players should they need any help or if they need to speak to anyone.
Talking to their players about their mental well-being requires understanding one of two concepts, Hopkins said.
The first is recognizing the tremendous pressure the athletes are under. And it’s getting players to realize they are more than just someone who plays a sport.
“Basketball is what you do but it’s not who you are,” Hopkins said. “We make sure there is communication if they are going through a tough time.”
Cohen said some athletes may feel forced to perform because of pressures and expectations from family who want them to keep a scholarship even if the athlete doesn’t want to play anymore. It’s an issue for “high-achieving students” at UW, too.
“I think that we need to slow down and remember this is not about results,” Cohen said. “We are in the people development business in higher education. Our goal is to help kids develop all aspects of their life.”
Cohen said it’s important to help students find an identity beyond their sport. Or for those who may not play a sport, the goal is to help them understand they are more than just what others expect of them.
Another complication is social media.
Cohen said there’s greater exposure and visibility than ever before on college athletes.
Moser has seen the good and bad of social media. A buzzer-beating shot leads to a stream of comments from fans celebrating a win. Or a bad play or performance that leads to a loss can spark feedback that goes beyond being critical.
Earlier this year, she went from being a walk-on to being on full scholarship. And while the response was positive, it surprised her how fast the news spread after she put it on Instagram.
“I put it on Instagram and I’d have people come up to me, some I never met, and say congrats,” she said. “It was quick how fast that spread.”
Cohen said because today’s youth receive more feedback from fans on social media, it’s important find ways to help students deal with it and not have it negatively effect them.
“It’s a massive deal and it’s not an athletic issue,” Cohen said. “This is a society issue for all kids that we’re raising right now and adults.”