Exclusive: Following Son’s Tragic Death, Parents of College Football Star Unite Mental Health Professionals & College Athletes in Game-changing Podcast

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State
Dec 28, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Washington State Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) throws a pass during the third quarter against the Michigan State Spartans in the 2017 Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

In January 2018, Kym and Mark Hilinski faced every parent’s worst nightmare. Their middle child, Tyler Hilinski, tragically died by suicide. He was only 21 years old.

Tyler’s devasting death took the college football world by storm. His death came just three weeks after making his first football start at Washington State University. Football was in Tyler’s blood. Tyler’s older brother, Kelly, played football at Columbia University, Riverside City College, and finished his career at Weber State University. Tyler’s younger brother, Ryan, plays at Northwestern University but spent the beginning of his collegiate career at the University of South Carolina.

After Tyler’s death, Kelly, now in medical school, switched his specialty from cardiovascular medicine to neurology. Ryan wears the jersey number 3, just like his big brother Tyler. Mark and Kym started what has now become one of the most influential mental health nonprofits in the collegiate athletics world.

In 2018, Mark and Kym founded the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation (H3H) to honor the life and legacy of their beloved son Tyler. H3H works with colleges and universities to educate, advocate, and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. The nonprofit organization also works to scale mental health resources for student-athletes by helping universities institutionalize best practices and funding programs that support student-athlete mental health and wellness. Mark and Kym travel the country sharing Tyler’s story, connecting student-athletes with resources, and helping universities improve their mental health support programs for college athletes.

When the pandemic derailed Mark and Kym’s ability to work with student-athletes in person, they wanted to figure out how to create a safe space to continue their mission of supporting college athletes’ mental health and wellness.

“We wanted to have a place to continue conversations when we couldn’t be on campus with H3H,” Kym told League of Justice.

What better way to reach a wide range of college athletes than a podcast? Partnering with University of Mississippi’s Assistant Athletic Director for Sport Psychology, Josie Nicholson, the Hilinski’s launched Unit3d, Conversations for Student-Athletes.

“A podcast seemed like a great way to continue to connect with and support student athletes throughout this bizarre pandemic. The pandemic hasn’t gone away and neither has Unit3d,” says Josie.

Unit3d interviews sport psychologists, mental health professionals, athletes, administrators and others around various topics related to student-athlete mental health and wellness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.

Unit3d features conversations with athletes like Drew Robinson, professional baseball player on the San Francisco Giants who shared his own story of his struggles with mental health and an attempted suicide. Former Olympic gymnast and now head coach of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks gymnastics team, Jordyn Wieber, discusses the power of resilience, sharing her experiences with overcoming setbacks and her passion for mentoring young women in sport.

Unit3d doesn’t just feature professional and Olympic athletes, the podcast also teams up with everyday college athletes, like Victoria Garrick, founder of the Hidden Opponent, or Jack Colquhoun, football player at Southern Illinois University who is actively fighting the mental health stigma among men.

“Unit3d is, I believe, unique as a podcast. It offers insight from some of the best sport psychologists and mental health professionals in the nation. It also highlights stories of resilience, bravery, and triumph from athletes across many different sports, competition levels, and career stages,” host Josie Nicholson told League of Justice.

Another pair of college athletes the podcast teamed up with are Megan Klavitter, former Division I volleyball player at Chicago State University, and Alexis Garrett, former Division I track and field athlete at Troy University. This past May, Megan and Alexis joined Unit3d to discuss their leadership with the Strength Comes in Many Forms mental health campaign by the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). Megan and Alexis are part of a group of dozens of Divisions I college athletes who for years have advocated for the mental health needs of athletes across the nation through policy changes and campaigns within NCAA governance.

“We couldn’t be more grateful and proud of the amazing people that work on Unit3d,” says Kym. On Dr. Nicholson’s involvement, Kym says Josie is one of the most connected and hard-working professionals they’ve had the pleasure of meeting since Tyler passed.

Kym says, “Josie’s non-stop support of all student athletes is relentless. We are lucky to have her, producer Graham Doty and editor Chelsi Battle create the best content through stories and conversations with a wide approach to bringing the best guests and topics that create opportunities for student athletes and others to learn how to deal with some of the most challenging issues confronting us today in the mental health space.”

Dr. Nicholson mentions the podcast has even helped her.

“Unit3d was an unexpected gift to me. Unit3d was a way that I could continue to support student athletes in addition to the telehealth I was providing. What was most unexpected was how much I have benefitted from the conversations!”

Josie told League of Justice the podcast allowed her to learn a new skill, connect with friends and colleagues, engage with new individuals and most importantly, continue supporting student-athletes during a time of severe hardship and distress.

Josie exclaims, “I believe that all of this got me through a rough 2020. We all thrive when we engage in service to and consistently connect with others.”

With the upcoming holidays and recent spike in coronavirus cases, many people likely feel an increased sense of distress. Unit3d’s most recent podcast features Brian Simmons, LCSW with Ole Miss Athletics, who walks listeners through a mindful meditation for holidays to learn to wind down and relax.

Josie says she is grateful to Mark and Kym for trusting and believing in her. “I am humbled to be considered a part of an organization like Hilinski’s Hope and I don’t take the responsibility of that association lightly. When I think of Unit3d I am unbelievably grateful,” Josie says.

As Hilinski’s Hope continues to grow their impact supporting college athlete mental health, at the heart of it all is and will always be Tyler.

In a recent Instagram post, the Hilinski’s write, “As we always do during the holidays since Tyler passed, we go off the grid to just be together, share stories about Tyler, laugh and cry, rest and recharge our batteries for a new year of Hilinski’s Hope travels and projects to add to our journey of hope.”

The Hilinski’s comment, “Our endeavors are possible because of your continuous support and generous donations, we are so very grateful for all of you. Your commitment to helping us is truly changing and saving lives.”

As H3H states, “please remember Tyler with love, and do three good things everyday.”

To support Hilinski’s Hope, here are three things you can do:

  1. Donate at https://www.hilinskishope.org/donate
  2. Listen to the UNIT3D Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or SoundCloud and follow Unit3d on Instagram
  3. Bring H3H to Campus
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