Hilinski's Hope expands beyond football in effort to honor Tyler Hilinski, raise mental health awareness

“Our goal is to change and save a life. If we can just change a life of one person or save one life then I think Tyler would be proud of our work.”

Mark and Kym Hilinski pose for a picture at their home Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, in Irvine, Calif. The parents of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who killed himself in Pullman, Wash., in January, have become advocates for greater awareness of mental health issues among student-athletes and are channeling their energy into Hilinski's Hope, a foundation created to bring resources to bear on the issues. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Tyler Hilinski was a talented quarterback who played for Washington State University. Born on May 26, 1996, in Southern California, he grew up in a supportive and athletic family. His passion for football was evident from a young age, and he excelled in the sport throughout his high school career.

In 2015, Hilinski committed to play for the Washington State Cougars, where he quickly made an impact on the team. As a backup quarterback during his freshman and sophomore years, he displayed great potential and an impressive work ethic. He was on pace to become the team's starter going into his junior year.

His natural talent as a quarterback, combined with his dedication and leadership qualities, made him a beloved figure among his teammates and fans. He had a remarkable ability to rally his team, displaying both grace and tenacity in the face of challenges.

Unfortunately, in January 2018, Hilinski tragically took his own life at the age of 21. His untimely passing shocked the WSU community and left a void in the hearts of his loved ones. The devastating loss sparked important conversations about mental health, the pressures faced by student-athletes, and the need for increased support and resources in the sporting world.

Hilinski’s Hope was started by Kym and Mark Hilinski, Tyler's parents, shortly after his death in 2018. Over the course of five years, the Hilinskis have traveled the country connecting with college sports programs, discussing mental health advocacy for athletes and strengthening campus mental health resources.

Initially, they reached out solely to college football programs, but they have since expanded to all college sports in an effort to erase stigmas and raise awareness.

“We started Hilinski’s Hope just a few months after Tyler passed, and you can imagine we're sad today," Mark Hilinski said. "We were sad then, and we'll be sad tomorrow. We didn't know exactly what we wanted to do. We just knew that we couldn't sit still."

The couple raised three athletes who all played Division I football. Kelly, the oldest, was a quarterback at Columbia University before transferring to Weber Stater. Their youngest son, Ryan, is currently a quarterback at Northwestern.

They are using their experiences as parents of collegiate athletes to advocate for those who can't.

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2016, file photo, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) runs onto the field with his teammates before an NCAA college football game against Idaho, in Pullman, Wash. Mark and Kym Hilinski keenly remember the swirl of activity. Rushing to Pullman after learning their son, Tyler, had taken his life. Planning memorial services both on the Washington State campus and back home in Southern California. Dealing with authorities as they tried to determine why 21-year-old Tyler was gone. The Hilinskis could have been overwhelmed by the grief and sadness. Then the letters and boxes began arriving at their home, sent by Cougars players, fans and others, saying how much they had been touched by Tyler's story. (AP Photo/Young Kwak, File)
Tyler Hilinski received his first start for the Cougars in the 2017 Holiday Bowl, completing 39 of 50 passes for 272 yards with two touchdowns. (AP Photo/Young Kwak, File)

Mental health advocacy at the national and Congressional level

In 2022, the Hilinskis met with legislators from the U.S. House of Representatives to advocate for increased awareness and resources for student athlete mental health, ultimately resulting in the introduction of House Resolution 1423 which designates the first week of October as “National Student Athlete Mental Health Awareness Week.” Endorsed by the NCAA, the resolution encourages colleges and universities to address stigma, strengthen mental health resources and further research into the mental wellbeing of athletes.

They are collaborating with other advocacy groups to continue raising the issue on a national scale.

"[Athletes For Hope], Hilinski’s Hope and some other groups got together to do an awareness campaign, visit some senators that are thoughtful about mental health, and let them know about [Resolution] 1423, and the College Athletes' Bill of Rights that’s being worked on as well,” said Mark.

On May 25, Hilinski’s Hope rebranded their “College Football Mental Health Week” to “Student Athlete Mental Health Week.” That coincides with Mental Illness Awareness Week, from Oct. 1-7, and will culminate on World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10.

“Doing all of [this] to honor Tyler and support our student athletes is sort of a surreal feeling, like, did I ever think I was going to be on Capitol Hill advocating for something like this? No, but I've always been an advocate for our athletes, our student athletes,” Kym Hilinski said. “Sometimes [people] are not seeing the athletes as actual human beings. But they are, they’re just like you and me.

"We've teamed up with some really great [mental health professionals], and what we've learned from them is that if [student athletes] are taking care of their mental health, they're going to be happier and healthier people and they're also going to be better athletes on the field and on the court because it's all connected. It's mind, body and soul. That's really what we're trying to push here on Capitol Hill, and also to let our student athletes know that it's OK to reach out and ask for help.”

According to a 2022 NCAA study, “rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression have seen little change since fall 2020” and remain 1.5 to two times higher than identified before the COVID-19 pandemic, among student athletes across Divisions I, II and III. Data also showed that “69% of women's sports participants and 63% of men's sports participants agreed or strongly agreed that they know where to go on campus if they have mental health concerns,” but when asked “if they would feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus,” less than half of participants answered that they would agree or strongly agree with that statement (48% and 46%, respectively).”

Mark Hilinski has seen, firsthand, the way the outlook on mental health has transformed in college sports.

“In that first go-round when we started College Football Mental Health Week, I called every athletic director in the SEC, I actually wrote them a letter," Mark Hilinski said. "And it just said here's what I want you to do. It's free, I want you to participate and here's why. And I think from that six-month period, further, we've gotten nothing but love and support from the schools, the administrators and the coaches because they understand what we're saying.”

Making sure voices are heard

PJ Ize-Iyamu Jr., a freshman sprinter at the University of Oregon, recognizes the significance of mental strength as an athlete. He acknowledges the pressure to excel in both sports and academics while maintaining a social life. Ize-Iyamu shares, "Much of my happiness stems from the success I have in my sport, and oftentimes when I am not producing in my sport, it affects my overall mood."

Mark and Kym Hilinski empathize with the physical and mental challenges these children face. Kym Hilinski emphasizes that student-athletes should understand that they have value beyond competition. She explains, "I would tell those athletes really that they are more than their sports, and they absolutely matter and they must take care of their mental health because mental health is health. There's just so much out there that causes so much anxiety, and of course our student-athletes are struggling with life, too, and not just their sport."

Kira Gupta-Baltazar, a triathlete at the University of San Francisco and an NCAA Division I national champion, acknowledges her influence within and beyond the realm of sports. She believes that student-athletes have valuable perspectives on mental health and broader societal issues. Gupta-Baltazar expresses, "[Student-athletes] are leaders in their communities, whether it is on campus or in their hometown ... We have so much more to offer in discussions of both mental health and our generation. If we are given a voice and a platform, we will have the ability to create positive social change."

Hilinski's Hope aims to provide student-athletes with a platform to advocate not only for themselves but also for their teammates and communities. Kym emphasizes the power of student-athletes using their voices and understanding each other's struggles.

"[Kira's] experience may be at the University of San Francisco, but their story is very similar to someone that's maybe playing in Miami ... They're anxious about a game, they're anxious about NIL, the transfer portal. The fact that they are using their voices and advocating for one another is very powerful," Kym said.

The Hilinskis are grateful, via Hilinski's Hope, to offer a platform where student-athletes can share their stories and support one another. Kym believes that amplifying these voices will lead to better support for the mental health of student-athletes.

“Our goal is to change and save a life," she said. "If we can just change a life of one person or save one life then I think Tyler would be proud of our work.”