Willamette University senior Brendan McGonigle wants to encourage more young men to talk about mental health (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Brendan McGonigle was a freshman at Willamette University, he lost a childhood friend to suicide.

The event spurred McGonigle, now a senior exercise and health science major, to do more to encourage men to seek help with mental health.

“I’m trying to change the way men handle their feelings,” he said.

His senior thesis focuses on men’s mental health. He’s encouraging men to seek help with an event Saturday, Feb. 22nd, at the Willamette men’s basketball team’s final game of the season.

He’s partnered with Dam Worth It, a campaign created by Oregon State University student athletes to start discussions about mental health.

At the game, McGonigle will set up a table with information about the university’s counseling center, alongside OSU representatives. The game begins at 6 p.m.

He’ll also speak at halftime to encourage other men to reach out and support each other and talk about feelings of sadness and stress, something he said is necessary to “change the culture” around mental health.

“It’s a growing issue. It’s not something that’s going to go away,” he said.

Right now, only one in five people regularly attending counseling at the Willamette health center are male, he said, despite mental illnesses being about evenly distributed by sex.

Men are often raised to deal with frustration or stress by becoming angry or hostile, he said, habits that don’t help people grow or process difficult emotions.

McGonigle’s mother is a psychologist, so he grew up learning that speaking about his emotions was normal and healthy.

But he’s seen that often isn’t the case for men around him, whether at the all-boys private school he attended in Seattle or on the Willamette soccer and football teams he used to play on.

The U.S. suicide rate has been climbing steadily for more than 20 years, and men are three and a half times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

McGonigle said his friend and other young men he’s known who have died by suicide often seem like the least likely people - they’re athletes, successful academically and often don’t reach out to those around them.

The perception is “it’s so much easier for them to just tough it out,” he said.

He’s tried to make talking about feelings normal among his housemates. During a recent breakup, McGonigle said talking through it with friends helped him move on. But he’s seen friends try to stifle academic stress or difficult feelings with hostility or alcohol and drug use, which rarely helps.

“It always kind of drags out and can bleed into other areas of their life,” he said.

McGonigle hopes appearing at a basketball game will help connect in particular with student athletes, who are particularly vulnerable to stress because of their intense schedule.

He’ll ask everyone in attendance to check in on a man in their life and ask how they’re doing to start that conversation.

“It’s one brick at a time. You have to take the step to be vulnerable,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.