ACC seeks to bolster mental health treatment for athletes

Mark and Kym Hilinski, the parents of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who killed himself in January 2018, have become advocates for greater awareness of mental health issues among athletes. They spoke Tuesday in Durham at the ACC’s inaugural mental-health summit.
Mark and Kym Hilinski, the parents of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who killed himself in January 2018, have become advocates for greater awareness of mental health issues among athletes. They spoke Tuesday in Durham at the ACC’s inaugural mental-health summit.

Several times during his speech on Tuesday, Mark Hilinski paused a few moments to compose himself. He always cries, his wife said later, when he addresses an audience and tells the story of his son, Tyler, the former Washington State quarterback who died by suicide in 2018.

In a large banquet room filled with about 200 people, Mark and Kym Hilinski served as the keynote speakers at the ACC’s inaugural Mental Health and Wellness Summit at a Durham hotel. In front of an audience of college athletes, coaches and administrators, the Hilinskis recounted the story of their son’s death.

“This is the part we think we can add, is to continually drive down the stigma (of mental illness),” Mark Hilinski said after his talk. “If I’m going to get up there and bawl like a baby – if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do.”

Mental health has become a focal point in college athletics in recent years, with advocates calling for athletes to have more, and improved, access to mental healthcare resources and treatment. In January, the Power 5 college athletics conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC – passed legislation that requires their schools to provide mental health services to all athletes.

The ACC’s summit, commissioner John Swofford said on Tuesday, represented one of the conference’s first formal steps to provide resources to address the mental well-being of its athletes. At the start of the summit, Swofford spoke of the league’s recent competitive achievements. He highlighted Virginia’s national championship in men’s basketball and Clemson’s in football.

But, Swofford said, “what is going on today, I’d say, is more important than those national championships.” He said the ACC “needs to be a leader” in providing mental health services to athletes, and he described those athletes as the conference’s “biggest and best assets.”

“They are why we’re here,” Swofford said. “And valuing and nourishing the psychological, mental and physical health of our most precious and valuable assets, our student-athletes, has to be number one.”

The ACC, along with athletes who represent its schools, have for the past year discussed ways to improve mental health treatment for its athletes. Nolan Lennon, a Clemson soccer player who serves on the ACC’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said on Tuesday that one of the committee’s priorities “was making sure that every campus has the resources possible to access mental health services.”

“As of this year, every single campus in the ACC has some form of mental health service, whether it’s a therapist, psychologist, sports psychologist,” said Lennon, who recounted his own mental health challenges after he suffered injuries. “Every campus has at least one of those people that their student-athletes can have access to. And that’s just a foundation of mental health services.”

About 25 athletes across several sports are attending the two-day summit, a conference spokesperson said. The event features 10 breakout seminars, with titles including “Student Athlete Mental Health 101: There’s No Health Without Mental Health,” “Self-Care and Stress Management” and “Suicide Prevention Strategies.”

Tyler Hilinski’s suicide stunned his family and friends, and the greater college football community, in January 2018. His parents on Tuesday recounted that their son had shown no outward signs of depression, or other warning signs. Later, they learned that he hadn’t shared his troubles with teammates or friends.

“One of the difficult things in doing this, as you can imagine,” Mark Hilinski said at the start of his talk, “is kind of reliving it.”

After the death of his son, Mark said, he and his wife hoped that Tyler’s mobile phone might contain clues about what led to Tyler’s death. For months, though, the phone was missing. Eventually, the family found it. Perhaps the only clue it contained, Mark said, was the password to unlock it. It spelled out the word “sorry.”

The Hilinskis average about two talks per month, Kym said. During them, they’re careful to avoid framing their son’s suicide as if it was a choice. They emphasize that it was the result of an unseen illness.

“We don’t say ‘commit’ suicide anymore,” Mark Hilinski said. “We try not to. ‘Die by suicide.’ I choose to say ‘left.’ Though that still implies they knew what they were doing.”

After the opening session, Swofford, 70, spoke of how far mental health awareness had come over his lifetime in college athletics. He played football at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1969-71 and served as UNC’s athletic director from 1980 until 1997, when he became the ACC’s commissioner.

In his college playing days, Swofford acknowledged, there wasn’t much talk about mental health.

“In terms of individual dealings with pressures and issues, whether it was on the field or off the field, there really wasn’t much said about it,” he said on Tuesday. “It was ‘suck it up and be a man’ sort of approach, I guess, that was indicative of the times.”

In that way, he said, there has been a lot of progress. Yet he spoke of his hope, too, that the summit was only a starting point.

“This can’t be a one-year summit, so to speak, and then things dissipate,” he said. “It’s something that’ll have to be followed up on and dealt with day-to-day, and invested in day-to-day in our campuses.”

Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.