Boise State

‘You never know what’s going on inside.’ How Boise State is addressing athletes’ mental health.

It’s the sort of image you rarely see outside the end of a sports movie — the unheralded quarterback carried off the field on people’s shoulders, moments after leading an incredible victory.

After the clock ticked past midnight Pacific time into the early hours of Sept. 10, 2017, Tyler Hilinski was mobbed by delirious fans and teammates as Washington State overcame a 21-point deficit to beat Boise State 47-44 in triple overtime.

Though it might be something the Broncos would prefer to forget, they forever will remember Hilinski’s finest hour.

Four months after the Cougars’ backup saved the day, he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That hit close to home at Boise State, and has reverberated around college athletics.

“We all saw how happy he looked after that game, but you never know what’s going on inside,” Boise State senior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “I think every program is starting to take a closer look when it comes to mental health, especially after what happened with Tyler. It was an unbelievable tragedy, but hopefully it gets the conversation going more, that universities do more.”

College athletes face many of the same stressors as all students, such as being away from home, classwork, living on their own. But there are unique challenges for athletes, from performance anxiety to dealing with injuries, social media scrutiny, and the rigors of balancing sports and school.

“If we want to get physically stronger, you lift weights. You want your cardio, you go and run,” Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin said. “But where can we help kids if they want their minds to be stronger? That’s a tool that can help you, and we’re trying to make it a bigger part of what we do.”

In fact, Boise State is doing something new this fall — integrating the mental health component into its athletic training department. It is now formally “Sports Performance, Health and Wellness.”

For the first time, the athletic department has added a full-time mental health expert, director of athletic performance-psychology Stephanie Donaldson.

“As it becomes more commonplace, more understood, we need a lot more resources for (athletes) to work with — there’s a mental component in everything they do,” said Marc Paul, Boise State’s director of sports performance, health and wellness. “... Stephanie is an absolute rock star, just been an unbelievably important addition.”

A new ‘playbook’

Donaldson, a Borah High graduate who was a collegiate swimmer at Pepperdine University, had consulted with the athletic department on certain cases over the past decade and helped connect athletes with on-campus health services. She is leaving her private practice to work in athletics, saying “it is always what I’ve wanted to do.”

Last year, Donaldson saw a note on a white board in Paul’s office, a wish list of things he wanted. A mental health expert/counselor was a top item. She said she wanted that job, and Paul pushed for it to be a newly created position in the athletic department.

Thus far, Donaldson has helped develop Boise State’s policy and procedures toward mental health, creating what she calls a “playbook” for coaches and staff to notice signs and how to report them.

Her job involves a three-pronged approach: clinical, educational and preventative. Donaldson counsels athletes one-on-one and connects them with health services on campus, and plans to devote groups to discussion topics such as stressors and coping skills. There is a focus on instructing coaches, administrators and athletes on identification, and routine physicals now integrate mental health screening.

“We’re hoping to catch student-athletes at a 2 or 3 instead of a 10. We want to be proactive instead of retroactive in our approach,” Donaldson said.

There will be a continual rollout this fall in the department of “normalizing care-seeking and reducing the stigma.” Donaldson said student-athletes have the same prevalence of mental health issues as typical college students but are less likely to seek help.

“It’s been received very positively. No one denies here in athletics there’s a need, we’re trying to foster a culture where it’s OK to talk, reduce that stigma,” Donaldson said. “They recognize if you’re mentally healthy, you can perform better, and they can identify who may need help.”

‘We don’t talk about it enough’

Most athletes or those around them have been affected by mental health concerns.

Rypien’s uncle, former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, publicly has discussed his struggles, including an admission he’d attempted suicide. Mark was a star at Washington State, and Brett was recruited heavily by the Cougars. Three days after he committed to Boise State, they offered a scholarship to Hilinski.

In August 2011, Rick Rypien, a cousin of Mark and Brett’s father Tim, committed suicide. Rick played parts of six seasons in the NHL and had signed a new contract with the Winnipeg Jets a month earlier.

“I definitely think, especially in today’s society, that we don’t talk about it enough,” Brett Rypien said. “It’s affected my family, really twice, with my cousin Rick and all the struggles Mark has gone through. The more people can start the conversation, the better. It’s not to be taken lightly. It helped Mark that he was really able to talk about it. It wasn’t something Rick felt like he was able to do, and I think it’s a big reason why he took his life. To bring that conversation forward, to get help for it, that’s what people need.”

Paul had wanted to bring on someone like Donaldson for quite some time. At Boise State since 2008, Paul previously spent a decade at Nevada, where during his tenure a football player committed suicide.

“How it’s handled now as opposed to then, it’s not even close,” Paul said. “I see how far we’ve come, and I pray to God we never have to go through it again. When it hits close like that, or like (Hilinski), you want to do everything in your power to prevent it.

“We need to be deliberate in how we do it, and have to do it the right way. It’s a bit frustrating because there’s such an overwhelming need. It’s a no-brainer, but you can’t just rush in.”

‘A huge deal’

With school back in session and teams in practice, Donaldson has been making her tour around the athletic facilities, introducing herself to athletes and coaches. She spent time with the volleyball team before Tuesday’s practice.

“(Donaldson) has played Division I sports, so she knows what you’re struggling with,” junior Janell Walley said. “... I think it was a smart move by the university. I think all sports in our athletic department were excited about it.”

Said volleyball coach Shawn Garus: “It will be great for the athletes to address their everyday needs in addition to the crisis management part. From a coach’s perspective, to have that available to us is a huge deal.”

Mental health slowly has become less of a taboo topic across all sports. NBA All-Stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan recently have opened up about their struggles. In his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech on Aug. 4, Brian Dawkins discussed his depression and battling suicidal thoughts early in his career.

“One thing about this position is that once athletes are open to discuss it, it’s in their nature to be motivated to want to change and to improve,” Donaldson said. “... As more and more athletes are speaking up, I think it trickles down and affects every level.”

Some of Boise State’s football players will wear “Hilinski’s Hope” bracelets this season. His mother knows the mother of the Broncos’ Joe and Nick Provenzano, and had a box of the bracelets sent to the team recently.

(The Mayo Clinic found that Hilinski’s brain “had the pathology of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).” The diagnosis was Stage 1, the lowest level, but Hilinski’s parents told Sports Illustrated that doctors said his brain looked “like that of a much older, elderly man.” CTE is the result of repeated concussions, something many former football players have been found to have after their deaths.)

“We saw Tyler in person, we saw him compete, and that made it feel real. It was hard on a lot of our guys,” Harsin said. “Mental health was something we’d always considered, but it’s becoming something we’re talking about more. We want our athletes to have people they can trust, and I think we’re on the right track.”

Five years ago, fewer than 25 percent of Division I schools had a full-time mental health practitioner on staff, but that number is on the rise, with Boise State among those devoting more resources.

“It will continue to grow ... Boise State isn’t alone in needing this,” Donaldson said. “As we can normalize the conversation, the more effort we can put into helping these students.”


Hilinski’s Hope — promotes awareness and education of mental health and wellness for student-athletes

Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline — online chat 3 pm to midnight; also 208-398-4357 (text or call)

Pathways Community Crisis Center — mental health care experts in Boise

ULifeline Online Resource for College Mental Health — Text “Start” to 741-741

Boise State Health Services — on-campus resources for students