SALT LAKE CITY — Alex Whittingham was riding in a car with his parents, Kyle and Jamie, when he heard the news of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilsinki.
Earlier this month, the 21-year-old Hilsinki was found dead in his apartment from an apparent suicide. The Whittinghams, like the rest of the sports community, were shocked by the tragedy.
“Hearing something like that, it makes you sick,” the younger Whittingham said. “You’ll never know what that guy was going through. It just breaks your heart that someone was suffering that bad that it led them to make a decision like that. I just wish there was something that anyone could have done — that we could have done — before something like that happened.”
For 24-year-old Alex Whittingham, who was delivered the news via Twitter, the impact was personal. For nearly half of his life, he admits to having struggled with depression, anxiety and OCD, particularly while serving an LDS Church mission to New Zealand, from which he arrived home nine months early.
But until the summer of 2017, he kept his struggles private. He took his battle public as a means of helping other athletes struggling with mental health and wellness issues. In a note shared on Twitter, he wrote, in part: “There were times when I would have rather been dead than to continue feeling what I was feeling.”
Today, Whittingham says he has been approached by others thanking him for his courage in speaking out on the topic.
“It’s been a cool experience,” Whittingham said. “I had a lot of people reaching out to me through Twitter DMs and Instagram and whatnot that said, ‘Thanks for saying what you said. I’ve suffered through this or I know someone that’s suffered through this, and it’s so cool to know there are other people out there like me.’
"It’s been really humbling to make an impact on a few people.”
Whittingham’s transparency — along with BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum's, who similarly took his fight public via social media last April — is uncommon if for no other reason than the longstanding stigma surrounding mental health and high-profile athletes.
In truth, the misperception of athletes being invulnerable to mental health issues has made it difficult for some to confess their personal battles. Making things doubly difficult is that in some ways, the pressures faced by student-athletes are unique and stem from a variety of sources.
Among the most common examples are the pressures to perform at a high level both physically and academically, the pressures to maintain a happy temperament in the presence of coaches and on social media, the pressures to maintain a healthy body image, and finally, pressures from sexual identity.
Recently, former Washington State and Logan High product Luke Falk took the time to address the problem at his Senior Bowl press conference (before withdrawing from the event to attend Hilsinki's funeral).
Per The Seattle Times, Falk said of the stigma: “I feel like at times we feel like we can’t express our emotions because we’re in a masculine sport and being a quarterback, people look up to you as a leader. (Tyler) felt like he really probably couldn’t talk to anybody. We’ve got to change some of that stuff. We have to have resources and not have a stigma of people going to that.”
According to Jonathan Ravarino, the University of Utah’s director of sports psychology, that stigma isn’t specific to football players, either. From his experience, these stigmas converge to sprawl across all of team sport’s cultures.
“There’s a lot of misperceptions about how well (student-athletes) have it,” he told KSL.com. “There’s some masculine aspects of sports — ‘be self-reliant, be independent, be tough, be hard, win at all costs.’ … So when you have those together, it’s an extra stumbling block.”
Alex Whittingham took it one step further, saying the problem is societal while acknowledging that student-athletes are placed in a particularly tricky spot.
“No matter who you are, people look at you like ‘Ooh, they’re broken,’” Whittingham said of the perception of those dealing with mental illness. “But athletes in general, I think we are kind of burning the candle at both ends in that we do need to be these tough, stoic people that aren’t fazed by anything. And at the same time, athletes do get a lot of criticism from people. It’s a difficult spot.”
According to the most recent data from the National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression, one out of every 12 students makes a suicide plan. But in terms of student-athletes, a 2015 study conducted over a nine-year period found that the suicide rate among student-athletes was less than that of the general and collegiate population of a similar age.
Still, the problem of depression among student-athletes persists and may be growing worse. Recently, a study conducted by Drexel University in 2016 involving 465 Division I athletes found that “nearly 24 percent of the 465 athletes reported ‘clinically relevant’ levels of depressive symptoms, and 6 percent reported moderate to severe symptoms.” Furthermore, their research found that depression rates among student-athletes closely resembled that of the general collegiate population.
On a local level, at least one university has discovered as much, finding that the depression rate among general students and student-athletes to be at a nearly equal 10 percent clip.
“The numbers, at a minimum, are the same,” Ravarino said of the depressive symptom rate found among students and student-athletes at the University of Utah. “That reflects in our case load that amount of student-athletes who are having considerable thoughts of self-harm, suicide. And then there are just tons who have attempted that we never know about because they didn’t complete it. … It’s pretty significant.”
Due to the rate among student-athletes, Utah athletic director Chris Hill installed an athletics-based mental health program into the sports medicine department several years ago. Today, the program ranges from counseling and assistance to dealing specifically with focus and performance, and is offered for student-athletes for up to four years post-separation.
According to Hill, expanding the existing clinical psychology staff became a priority after doing some of his own research.
“The more research you do and the more you read, the more you understand the importance (of student-athletes' mental wellness), and the stress on students in general at universities,” Hill said. “We, as a group, looked at some of the needs in the department. We wanted to have student-athlete support, and it became very clear to our executive committee that a clinical psychologist was really, really important.”
For universities without a specialized sports psychologist on staff, they often rely on a combination of the school’s existing resources and partnerships with local hospital networks as a means of counseling students.
But as much as anything, the utilization of word of mouth from those inside the program — including players, coaches and trainers — can be used as resources to support the program.
“We’re trying to empower teammates to be watchful, to question what’s going on because they’re closest to it,” Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee said of his school’s approach to dealing with student-athlete mental health. “We work with our coaching staffs, and our trainers are really at the front line of this. Trainers are in an interesting situation — they’re around everything. They tape athletes so they hear them when they’re chatting with each other. They ride the bus, they’re at team meals. Your trainers are a huge resource to get the vibe of the program.”
Today, the recent conversation surrounding student-athlete mental health has provided decision-makers with an opportunity to take self-inventory.
“It makes you take a look at what you’re doing to see if there (are) tweaks you can have in your system to make it better,” Hill said. “It raises awareness one more time of how serious these issues are. … It’s a chance to take a look at what we’re doing and get better.”
Bovee added: “I know we can all do better because it’s a moving, breathing issue that continually needs attention and the latest research of how to continue to get better. … It’s always on our mind.”
Dillon Anderson is studying literary journalism as a student at the University of Utah. You can follow him on Twitter @DillonDanderson.