The aside that Mark Hilinski floated to a room filled with mental health professionals who work in college sports wasn’t intended as any sort of plan. The Hilinskis attend this gathering every year, after losing their middle son, Tyler, to suicide in 2018. They know most everyone in attendance. Likewise, most know either them or their foundation, which focuses on mental health advocacy and resources.
Those who work in that particular space have gathered annually for years. The Hilinskis always give a similar update to a captive audience, the bulk of which want to understand how their foundation—and its impact—grew so quickly yet so organically. Here’s one example of how—from that day and that update.
This particular conference took place in Nashville. Mark stood before the room and hit the audience with numbers—of stories published on the foundation, of impressions for those stories or TV/radio segments and the theoretical dollar value such visibility would command in typical advertising revenue. That kind of stuff. But he also said something he hadn’t planned to say. The Hilinski’s wildly popular College Football Mental Health Week had grown beyond anyone’s expectations. And, in that room, he added that maybe it should be renamed or re-branded to broaden the inherent ambition, shifting the focus beyond just football to football and all the other sports.
Mark certainly didn’t expect any reaction, let alone the one—impromptu cheers, cat calls, clapping—the audience ultimately showered upon him. That moment signified, he says, “How they were all for this. They understood.”
The creation of Student Athlete Mental Health Week started there. This year, it will be held from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7, marking both the fourth iteration of the event and its largest twist to date. As interested universities now number over 100, the tally continues rising. Adding in soccer and baseball and softball and the rest means more impact in more places.
The Hilinskis created the week in 2020 on little more than a “flier,” Mark says. They tested it out with a few schools, mostly in the SEC, where the youngest of their three boys, Ryan, was starting his career as a college quarterback at South Carolina. That first year, 17 schools participated. Mark and Kym asked them to wear ribbons or helmet decals; engage in training sessions; or simply hold up three fingers, for Tyler’s No. 3, at the start of the third quarter of football games staged that week. Alabama joined—Nick Saban made the hand gesture on the sideline. So did Georgia. Clemson. Texas A&M.
The overarching goal remained the same, even as the number of participating institutions doubled and tripled and ballooned. Mark and Kym wanted to become “resource creators,” so they could not just raise awareness or reduce stigmas. Also so they could clear a path between “the athletes who need help and the people who can help them.” Last year, 126 schools participated.
“Eventually,” Mark says, “we got to the point where we go, this actually can be pretty powerful, right?”
Most years, organizers held the gathering at a ski resort in Big Sky, Mont. Their organization is called CCSPA, or Clinical Counseling Sports Psychology Association. They plan to move the event around now and held this year’s in mid-February in Tennessee, where, with the available bounty of country music, participants could perhaps find inspiration in their shared stories of institutional bureaucracy, lack of resources, or the complexity baked into mental health.
In recent years, while speaking with several commissioners of college conferences, Mark and Kym realized that many who ran major college athletics wanted to do more for their athletes’ mental health. The issues were typical: time, resources, emphases; and where to find more of all. Some were surprised to learn they provided all the materials—and even training modules and programs—themselves.
Since all three of their boys played quarterback in college—Kelly is the oldest—football seemed like the most natural fit, at first. Until it no longer did. Mark and Kym heard from hundreds of athletes (and their parents) in other sports already. Some non-football athletes even asked if they could participate in a week with “football” as part of the name. Why not include them, all their friends and everybody else?
“The stories from runners and golfers and swimmers and basketball players in every sport told us that this is not a football problem very, very early,” Mark says, calling the pivot a culmination of all those stories, all their work.
That process hasn’t changed as the scope and size of Hilinski’s Hope expands. From the moment Tyler died, Mark and Kym have simply followed their hearts, crisscrossing the country to tell his story and prevent another—or another dozen, or another hundred—deaths. “I don’t know if we had a complete vision of what this was really going to look like,” Kym says. “It feels surreal. But we’re just so thankful, to be able to amplify our mission.”
With World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, the timing works out perfectly, twinning with the momentum that already exists. Last year, when Mark and Kym met with legislators in the House of Representatives, they advocated for increased awareness and resources for mental health for college athletes. Soon, House Resolution 1423 passed, which designated the first week of October as a week in college sports with a mental health focus.
All of the growth has led Mark and Kym to something of a crossroads in regard to their life’s mission beyond their boys. They want to help. And not only do they want to help, they want to help as many people as they can. But as their work expands, it continues to take several tolls on them specifically, whether through their health, their finances, or their time, which is forever stretched thinner and thinner.
Expanding would mean adding staff, becoming bigger and growing into a nonprofit with even more expansive reach but also all of the expenses necessary to continue a dizzying upward spiral. Not expanding might mean not reaching athletes that they could touch. Expanding can feel necessary. It can also feel overwhelming. But this is Mark and Kym, and their mission hasn’t changed, whatever it may ultimately look like in practice. And, for now, the pivot felt right, so they followed it. Same as every day before and, in all likelihood, for every day upcoming.
To learn more and/or get involved with Hilinski’s Hope Foundation, please visit https://www.hilinskishope.org/samhw.
To learn more about H3H please visit www.hilinskishope.org.