Disclaimer: This story contains descriptions of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts that some readers may find disturbing. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and/or thoughts of suicide, dial 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). A list of more national and local resources is available at the bottom of this article.
Tre Tipton lives his life by a simple motto: “Adversity is a comma in the sentence of life, not a period.”
“Your life does not have to end because something so serious is happening to you in your life,” Tre says. “It gives you an opportunity to keep moving forward in your life. Although it’s very harmful, and it hurts, and it’s painful, it’s more than likely teaching you something — just teaching you to be resilient.”
It took time for Tre to learn that lesson for himself. The former University of Pittsburgh wide receiver struggled with depression for much of his childhood, hiding his feelings from others. He reached his breaking point during his freshman year at Pitt when he attempted suicide multiple times.
After his final attempt, Tre realized he needed help. He sought mental health treatment and learned the strategies to help him overcome his internal burdens.
Not only that, but Tre became a powerful mental health advocate himself. He co-founded an organization for Pitt student-athletes dealing with mental health challenges. And he shares his own story as an example of how people can overcome even their greatest challenges.
“At one point in time, I thought every piece of adversity I was going through would be the end of me,” he says.
“But then I learned that just because this is here doesn’t mean it’s over. You still get the chance to wake up and make another better day, and take that win and make another better day, and take that win and make another better day. You get that opportunity to seize the opportunity.
“Adversity stops you for a moment, so you can keep going.”
‘I Felt Like I Was in a World of My Own’
Tre’s mental health burdens began when he was 7 years old.
At his father’s and stepmother’s house one morning, his father asked him to wake his stepmother up for breakfast. Tre went upstairs and found his stepmother dead in her bed; she had died in her sleep.
“I remember from there, I didn’t know what I was thinking,” he says now. “I didn’t know what I was feeling. But I knew I didn’t want to be alive.”
The trauma affected Tre for years afterward. He says he had the same nightmare involving his stepmother every night for seven years. He knew something was wrong but wasn’t sure what it was.
His stepmother wasn’t the only death Tre experienced during childhood. His uncle and one of his closest friends died when he was in sixth grade. At 14, he learned his mother had a serious heart problem that put her life in jeopardy.
All of it affected Tre, but he didn’t tell anyone. He buried his feelings and became distant from others. Mental health problems carried a strong stigma at that time.
“It was something that I felt like even if I tried to open up to somebody about it, they wouldn’t understand,” he says. “At that time, the Black community was not known for talking about mental health. And it became difficult because I felt like I was in a world of my own.”
Tre was living with and taking care of his grandmother, who was having health problems. His mother was working several jobs, but the family still had financial problems. But Tre, one of just a few Black students at his school, felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about his problems.
Tre found a new way to bury his feelings: sports.
Sports became Tre’s biggest outlet, starting when he was a child. He found he could forget about his problems — temporarily — while playing sports.
“I always resorted back to sports to kind of give me just some type of pain relief over time,” he says. “It became the one place where I felt comfortable, the one place I felt happy.”
Tre became a three-sport star in high school, excelling in football, basketball, and track and field. He earned a football scholarship to Pitt.
But his problems weren’t over just yet.
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‘You’re Not Ready to Die Yet’
Tre calls 2015 into 2016, his freshman year at Pitt, “the hardest year of my life.”
On the surface, everything looked fine. He began the year as a member of the Pitt football team, a freshman wide receiver with promise. But his old problems remained, and new problems in his personal life only added to the burden.
Making matters worse, Tre suffered a serious knee injury that put him out for the rest of the football season.
With his one emotional outlet gone, Tre felt lost.
“I remember just being really, really cold and numb,” he says. “I didn’t feel like people could understand me.”
In the span of just a few months, he attempted suicide multiple times. He says he felt like a glass cup, and his negative emotions were like water pouring into it.
“If you’re consistently holding all the things that you’re going through and don’t talk to anybody, don’t say anything, or don’t find a different way of coping, eventually, you’re going to overflow,” he says. “Or, in the worst-case scenario, if you fill that water way too much, that glass now tips over and breaks.”
Tre reached his breaking point one night in late 2015 after hearing some shattering personal news. At that point, he felt he’d had enough.
He walked several miles from his Pitt dorm room into downtown Pittsburgh, eventually reaching the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
“As I approached the bridge, I just remember saying, ‘Let’s end it here, let’s finish this now,'” he says.
“And I remember climbing on the other side of the bridge and being like, ‘Yeah, I’m OK with this.’ As dark as the water was, it was as dark as I felt inside. And I was like, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready to let go.'”
As he prepared to jump, Tre slipped, then caught himself. And that action of catching himself told him something valuable: He wasn’t ready to let go after all.
“There was something in me that said, ‘You’re not ready to die yet,'” he says.
“And as I climbed back over on that bridge, I realized that it’s time to change. It’s time to stop losing to yourself. Because if you want change in this life, nobody’s going to just give it to you. You’ve got to go make a way for yourself.”
‘You Have to Keep Trying’
Tre made a vow the night he caught himself on the bridge: He would finally talk to someone about his problems.
He followed through on that promise. He began opening up, both with people in his inner circle and in therapy settings. But despite trying several therapists, Tre didn’t find the right fit right away.
“It just turned out that your first try is not always going to be the one,” he says. “Sometimes, you just have to keep trying, and keep trying, and keep trying until you find the right one.”
At the same time he was addressing his mental health challenges, Tre continued to experience physical setbacks on the field. In a 2016 game at the University of Miami, he caught a pass and took a hard hit. The impact left him with a collapsed lung, requiring a trip to the emergency department.
Before the 2017 season, he suffered another severe, season-ending knee injury.
When he learned his season was over before it began, Tre knew he couldn’t fall back into his previous mental health struggles. He realized he could instead take the setback of his injury and turn it into something positive.
Along with a fellow Pitt student-athlete, Tre created an organization called Living Out Victoriously Everyday (LOVE). The group’s aim was to help student-athletes who were experiencing their own mental health challenges.
“I didn’t want anybody else to feel lonely like I did,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that the other student-athletes around me didn’t feel lonely either, so we created an organization. Our biggest slogan is, ‘I’ve got your back.’
“It became one of these things where I felt like it was doing more for me at times than it was for the other people because I was also expressing myself. I was also telling people how I felt, what I was going through. It ended up being my biggest blessing to get hurt that year.”
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‘A Sense of Peace and Relaxation’
Though he had the support of other LOVE members, Tre also kept looking for help through formal therapy, either. And in 2018, Kristen Mackel, LCSW, approached him.
Through a partnership between UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and the Pitt athletic department, Mackel holds an embedded position in the Pitt athletic department as director of mental health and counseling for student-athletes. Before 2018, the service was available on an outpatient basis. The embedded partnership allowed Mackel and other mental health specialists more access to Pitt student-athletes.
Mackel had heard of Tre’s medical setbacks and wanted to let him know that she was available to talk if he needed her.
“One of the things that was really important was that he just knew that I was present for him as a human,” says Mackel, lead clinical counselor for University of Pittsburgh student-athletes at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “And, if he never played football again, that didn’t mean that our relationship wouldn’t work.”
Tre began to meet with Mackel. It took time to build a trusting relationship, but as time went on, he began to share more and more of his story.
“She allowed me to be able to speak freely on what I was feeling, and why I was feeling it, and what was going on around me,” Tre says. “And, it definitely brought me a sense of peace and relaxation. That’s hard to find at times when you constantly have things going through your head at such a young age that are not extremely healthy for you.”
Mackel says athletes — especially student-athletes — can have particular vulnerabilities to mental health challenges. Athletes get used to bottling up emotions on the field, which can cause problems off the field. Therapy can help show them that expressing their emotions is healthy.
“A lot of that is just emotional insight, emotional awareness, paying attention to the physiological clues and cues that your body and your brain are giving you,” Mackel says.
“And then, recognizing that just because you have an emotion doesn’t mean you have to act on the behavior, urge, or action — you can just experience the emotion. And, that emotions themselves are not something that are problematic. They are very important in communicating to ask what we want, or what we need.”
Tre says working with Mackel was instrumental to his success during his last few years at Pitt.
‘I Just Want to Help the World However I Can’
Tre ended up spending seven seasons with the Pitt football team.
The adversities in his life continued: He experienced more injuries, and the isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic presented another challenge. The biggest adversity came in 2021 when Tre’s mother — his rock — died before his final season at Pitt.
But through his work with Mackel and what he had already learned, he kept moving forward.
“Kristen played the role of just giving me somebody to talk to about it,” he says.
“I’m a very strong person. But certain things could definitely break a man, and that was one of them. And she definitely protected me, and I appreciate her for that.”
A season that began with heartbreak ended with joy as Pitt won its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship that season. Tre played a pivotal role for the Panthers both on and off the field.
“When I saw those numbers [on the clock] tick to the very end, I just remember being so happy,” Tre says. “I couldn’t even cry. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t even picture myself crying because I was just so happy.”
That year, Tre also celebrated a major personal accomplishment when he earned a master’s degree in social work. He became the first member of his family to get a master’s degree.
Tre promised himself in 2015 that he would become an advocate for mental health. He’s more than lived up to that promise.
Since sharing his story far and wide, he’s heard from many people who tell him how much his story helped them. And in 2021, Tre won the Disney Spirit Award as the most inspirational player in college football.
Though the accolades mean a lot to Tre, he says his motivation is always to help others.
“The focus has always been about — will always be about — the fact that I’m hoping to give somebody an opportunity to not feel alone and not to feel scared,” he says.
To that end, Tre is now coaching high school football players at Mt. Lebanon High School. And he’s continuing to help younger student-athletes with his mental health advocacy.
“One of Tre’s superpowers is to show up and do the work, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it feels hard,” Mackel says. “And, most importantly, is to ask for help. And I think that these are all the things that he gets to display.
“Representation really matters, and I am so excited for all of the young athletes that get to hear his story, and hear his struggle, and hear his accolades, and get to see, ‘OK, I can do it, too.'”
Tre says one of his ultimate goals is to lead an academy to teach kids about mental health, financial literacy, nutrition, and physical therapy. He’s not there yet, but the work he’s doing now is a step in that direction.
“I just want to help the world however I can,” he says.
Tre believes that self-care, self-love, and self-respect are important in mental health. He’s developed coping strategies that help him when he does experience hard times.
Today, Tre says he considers every adversity he faces as motivation. He wants people to know they shouldn’t give up — never stop trying, even in their darkest times.
“Don’t be scared to go through that adversity because it’s needed,” he says. “To every good, there’s a bad, and to every bad, there’s a good. So, even when it’s really bad, just know that at the end of the tunnel, there’s something good.”
Crisis Support Contacts
If you are struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, or other mental health crises, please call a national or local support or crisis number.
National crisis resources
- Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988.
- Trevor Lifeline (for LGBTQIA+ youth): 1-866-488-7386.
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255.
- MHTOOLS: Text “MHTOOLS” to 91939 to opt in to the UPMC Mental Health Toolbox.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.