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Mental health awareness program offers hope for student-athletes

Mark Hilinski speaks from a podium with an image of his son on the big screen behind him.
Mark Hilinski talks to MHS students about his late son Tyler.

Mark and Kym Hilinski’s voices cracked as they told the emotional story of their son Tyler’s life and death from suicide. More than 300 student-athletes in the MHS Auditorium didn’t utter a sound. No one moved a muscle.


Speaking softly from the podium, Kym talked about her son and described a competitive, friendly, good-natured young man that many student-athletes could relate to.


“He loved his high school. He loved his sport. He loved his teammates and he loved his coaches,” she said before pausing to keep from crying. “But he’s gone and as hard as I try, I can’t bring him back. What I can do is share his story and our journey so we don’t lose another Tyler. So you don’t suffer in silence.”


Tyler died of suicide in 2018, shortly before he was to become the starting quarterback in his junior year at Washington State University. His parents rebuilt their life around Tyler’s memory and now work full-time for their foundation, “Hilinski’s Hope.”


“After you lose someone, the love you have for them doesn’t stop,” she said. “So this is what I do with that love I have for Tyler. I spread it to you. You matter to me.”


The Hilinski’s travel extensively, speaking to athletes across the country to spread their message. In this case, an MHS parent knew someone working on a fundraiser for Hilinski’s Hope. Mark and Kym were in Evanston to watch a game involving their younger son, a quarterback at Northwestern, and they agreed to make a side trip to Mundelein.


Their message was simple yet critical: if you’re feeling out of sorts, get help. They made sure to promote the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800-273-TALK (8255) and the new three-digit Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, 988.


“If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or somebody else, let’s get help,” Mark said. “Let’s talk to somebody, let’s tell somebody.”


Their words caught some traction among students. After the program, one MHS parent immediately began talking to his son, a freshman athlete. Others spoke directly to the Hilinski’s.


Just outside the high school, where the Mustangs soccer team was playing, students wore shirts that read, “Break the Stigma,” and held up three fingers representing Tyler Hilinski’s football jersey number.


“The impact was more than what I would’ve expected,” said MHS Athletic Director Troy Parola. “It was emotional. It was powerful. It caused kids and even some parents to talk.”


The program coincided with the recent grand opening of the new Wellness Center at MHS. The Wellness Center is a place where students can go for a short mental health break during the day or to make an appointment to talk to a social worker or counselor. Students aren’t just using the center, they’re returning to it as needed, said Stevee Libert, MHS Assistant Principal of Student Life.


“That’s how we know this is working,” she said.


It’s the kind of hope that Tyler Hilinski’s mother would appreciate. She sees Tyler in each one of the young faces in her audience.


“Part of my heart is gone,” she said. “But standing with you here today, it gets filled up again.”


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