The Hilinski's Hope Foundation announced Thursday it has changed "College Football Mental Health Week" to "Student Athlete Mental Health Week," a rebranding founders Mark and Kym Hilinski believe better serves their message: prioritizing mental health for all collegiate athletes.
The Hilinskis created their foundation in 2018 after their son, Tyler, a quarterback for Washington State, died by suicide. As part of their efforts, they began "College Football Mental Health Week," initially reaching out to football programs to help raise awareness and erase stigmas surrounding mental health, because that is the sport their sons played.
But after speaking to athletic departments across the country over the past several years, they started to get the same question: Do we have to play football to participate?
"We've always been inclusive of all the student-athletes out there," Kym Hilinski told ESPN. "But some of the schools that didn't have a football program said, 'We want to be involved, too,' and we said sometimes just that name could maybe be a deterrent for a school reaching out, and we didn't want that to happen at all. We didn't want our student-athletes, the coaches, the ADs to think that our week and what we were putting together was not about all the student-athletes."
Now headed into Year 4, Student Athlete Mental Health Week initiatives will be featured Oct. 1-7, culminating on World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10. Those initiatives include participating in Hilinski's Hope's online mental health course to help reduce the stigma surrounding seeking help, participating in social media campaigns, assessing how participating colleges and universities are following best practices with their mental health programs, and hosting talks and trainings on campus for players, coaches, and staff -- all while honoring Tyler's legacy.
Last year, 125 collegiate programs participated in initiatives during this specific week. The Hilinskis said schools also created their own programming, including bringing in therapy dogs, additional speakers or creating team-specific events.
"It evolved on these campuses, which is the whole point -- to make it more comfortable to talk about," Mark Hilinski said. "We don't want anybody to feel they can't participate. When you sit down and think about it, we're trying to save the next Tyler. So whether that's 135 schools next year or 235 schools, the if we can get to that person and let them know that it's OK to ask for help, then we've accomplished something."
While the Hilinskis know there remains much work to be done to help raise awareness, one of their short-term goals is to have schools in all 50 states participate during their specially designated week.
"Mark and I aren't mental health professionals. We partner with some great ones. We respect what they do," Kym Hilinski said. "Our job as we see it is to just clear that path for the student athletes so that they're able to reach out and ask for help. If this week is something that makes it a little bit easier for them because they're all focusing on their mental health, that's what we're trying to do. Taking care of your mental health should never be a burden. It's your health."