Mark Hilinski said he sees good progress when it comes to talking about and prioritizing the mental health of student athletes, but he thinks the work will never be over.

In January 2018, Mark’s son Tyler, the starting quarterback for the Washington State football team, died by suicide. That led Mark and wife Kym to start Hilinski’s Hope, whose mission is “to educate, advocate, and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness” and to fund programs that help support mental health and wellness for student-athletes.

This week, Hilinski’s Hope is putting on the second annual College Football Mental Health Week, which concludes Saturday. Sixty-four schools, including Washington State and Washington, are among those taking part.

That alone is progress, as Mark Hilinski said the organization was hoping for 45 to 50 to take part.

Participating schools have agreed to do one of three things: have players wear a lime green ribbon on their helmets with the No. 3, Tyler Hilinski’s number; ask everyone at the stadium to hold up three fingers during the first play of the third quarter; or participate in an internal assessment of their mental health support for student-athletes.

“We know that some schools are doing all three, some are doing a couple and some are doing one, but we’re happy to have them, whatever they choose to do,” Mark Hilinski said.

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Hilinski said over the past three years the stigma over mental illness has been driven down, and he said the cause got a big boost this summer with star tennis player Naomi Osaka and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles talking about their mental health.

“That obviously brings more comfort to people when they need to talk about it,” Hilinski said. “… We all want to get to the point where we don’t call someone courageous who says: ‘I’m not thinking straight. I am thinking about harming myself.’ We’ve got to get to that point.

How to find help

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255); you will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. More info: suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Or reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling. More info: crisistextline.org.

“What we’ve seen is the convergence of a lot of groups like Hilinski’s Hope trying to get to that point, and it’s working. I hope getting our message and mission across is adding to the ability of others to ask for help.”

Mark Hilinski said the talks he and Kym give about Tyler are hard to listen to and hard to give.

“It doesn’t get any less emotional, and it’s really still tough,” Mark Hilinski said. “It’s raw, even now, after telling the story 100 times.”

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But they believe it is worth it.

“I think we are helping people,” Mark Hilinski said.

He said that Kym, when giving what the couple call a “Tyler talk,” will suggest to student-athletes: “If you are uncomfortable saying, ‘Mom, dad, coach, friend: I am struggling with mental health issues,’ maybe you can use Tyler’s story. ‘Do you remember the quarterback at Washington State that died by suicide? I just heard his family speak about what he was like and what happened. And I think I feel like him.’

Ryan comforting his mother, Kym, at a Washington State game in September 2018, after Tyler’s death. (Young Kwak / AP)

“I don’t see this ever ending. I think there are plenty of Tylers out there that need to hear this story and need help.”

Bryan Blair, deputy director of athletics at Washington State, said Cougar players will wear the No. 3 ribbons on their helmets Saturday against Oregon State. The school is also doing social-media promotion of mental health awareness and is holding mental-health focused programs and events throughout the week.

“I’m really happy we’ve partnered with Mark and Kym,” Blair said. “It’s nice that they are keeping this conversation alive.”

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

Blair got to WSU in fall 2018, and said, “Mental health has been a big priority.” In 2019, the school did a Game Day for Mental Health at the annual spring game, raising about $80,000 to fund mental health initiatives around campus.

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Blair thinks progress has been made regarding mental health awareness, “but I would argue the mental health crisis on college campuses is bigger than ever.”

“The need certainly seems bigger,” he said. “The pandemic heightened some things, so it’s probably more important now than ever to be having this conversation to make sure everyone understands that it’s OK not to be OK. … It’s OK to get counseling. It’s OK to talk to a professional. What Hilinski’s Hope and others have done is normalize the conversation.”

A picture of the Hilinski brothers sits on Ryan’s nightstand. The first time he put on a helmet, it was to help his brothers practice running over a defender. (Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)

That is what Mark and Kym Hilinski have sought to do, hoping to prevent a tragedy like one they suffered, one in which some questions will never be answered.

“Tyler had that AR-15 for three days before he used it,” Mark Hilinski said. “How terrible must those days have been. Did he cry himself to sleep every night? Did he try to do it earlier?

“It’s miserable for anyone, and we’re doing our best to try and figure out solutions for some of this.”