Among college quarterbacks preparing for the NFL draft, a man is measured by statistics such as hand size, 40-yard-dash time and how accurately he throws a deep ball to the end zone. Those metrics and many more were recorded at practices before last weekend’s Senior Bowl in Alabama. Aspiring pros then showcased their talents in the game.
Washington State University QB Luke Falk measured up well at the weeklong cattle call. But what set him apart from the herd was the message he delivered on media day, when he opened up about the life and death of Tyler Hilinski — Falk’s friend, teammate and WSU quarterback heir apparent.
Hilinski took his own life with a rifle on Jan. 16, a 21-year-old who died alone in his Pullman apartment.
“When suicide is the second-leading cause of death of men from 18 to 45 years old, it should be talked about and we should do something about it,” Falk said. “At times we feel like we can’t express our emotions because we’re in a masculine sport, and him being a quarterback, people look up to you as a leader.”
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Insightful words, for sure. But perhaps the truest measure of this man was what came next: Falk opted out of the Senior Bowl. He forfeited a big chance to impress pro scouts so he could attend Hilinski’s funeral.
Falk joined Cougar teammates and coach Mike Leach for the service in Southern California. The thousand people who gathered were united in sorrow as well as uncertainty: What would cause a successful, vivacious young man to end his life? What signs did they miss? What could they have done to stop it?
Such questions are asked and left unanswered all too often on Washington college campuses.
Leaving home for the collegiate pressure cooker can be a grueling time of life. A National College Health Assessment in 2015 found 30 percent of postsecondary students reported feeling so depressed in the previous year, they had difficulty functioning. Another survey found 9.5 percent of students seriously considered suicide.
Military veterans are among the highest-risk groups. And male students die by their own hand at twice the rate of female students.
State legislators this year should adopt important recommendations from a higher education task force on mental health and suicide prevention. One glaring gap that needs closing is the collection of accurate information at the individual college level; the task force wisely advises that every state postsecondary institution be required to submit an annual report tracking a range of data, such as on- and off-campus mental health resources and outreach efforts, number of suicide deaths and attempts resulting in hospitalization.
The Associated Press recently found that most of America’s largest public universities don’t track suicides. How can lives be saved if schools are willfully blind?
Senate Bill 6514 also would establish a much-needed grant program to support colleges that lack mental health resources. The task force identified a staggering 400,000 students in Washington’s two-year colleges and private career institutions with limited or no access to on-campus help.
At a hearing in Olympia Tuesday, a Bates Technical College staff member testified that she’s the only counselor serving 3,500 students across three Pierce County campuses. (Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood has no counselors, according to testimony.)
One former college athlete spoke about how when he injured his knee playing football, he was given thorough care and attention — in contrast with the isolation he felt before and after attempting suicide.
WSU quarterback Luke Falk didn’t address lawmakers; instead, he brought a powerful message to a national stage, which we hope he keeps sharing.
“We’ve got to have resources,” he said, “and not have any more stigma.”
And fewer tragedies featuring young adults who never reach their full measure.