Former NFL quarterback works to erase stigma surrounding mental illness after son's death

Eric Hipple hopes sharing his own experience might help other families

HOUSTON – Eric Hipple spent years in the limelight as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, but in private, his family suffered in silence.

Now, the former NFL star is opening up about his teenage son's suicide.

Hipple hopes sharing his own experience might help other families with the way they deal with mental health issues.

Looking back now, Hipple said he knew his son, Jeff, was having a hard time.

"His grades started dropping, he started not wanting to go to school. So that anxiety of not wanting to go to school, having trouble sleeping at night, really tired all the time," Hipple said. "And the ultimate, when his grades got to the point where he's not even able to play basketball, he's sitting on the bench."

Hipple thought his son was just going through the normal ups and downs of being a teenager.

"Suicide was never in the scope of my mindset that that could happen," Hipple said.

His freshman year in high school, Jeff died by suicide.

"I think for him, was kind of the point where he was letting everyone down and burdensome feeling. And everything else that drives a suicidal mind is that, 'People would be better off without me,' and I think that mindset and the hopelessness that a person feels is actually what leads them to taking their own life," Hipple said.

For a long time, and like so many others, Hipple blamed himself for his son's death.

"As a parent, you always think you could've done better," he said. "You know, however, that feeling of wanting to save, you know, your child, in any circumstance is always there, and it always will be."

Now, Hipple wants to change the way families talk about mental health -- more specifically teen suicide.

"After my son died, a neighbor came up to me -- and there was nobody around -- and walked up to me and whispered into my ear, 'We have one of those, too,'" Hipple said. "And my point was, 'Why are we whispering when there's no one around?' But that's what stigma is. It's hard to even say it out loud, and so, we should be talking about it out loud. We should be saying, 'This is an issue.'"

Since losing his son and retiring from the NFL, Hipple has devoted his life to breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to be connected to a suicide crisis center close to you.

VIEW: Youth Suicide Prevention resource | Preventing Suicide resource from CDC

This article is courtesy of WDIV-TV.