Hilinski’s Hope Foundation addresses student-athlete mental health

Megan Lee | The Chronicle

Kym Hilinski talks to the Mason community about possible next steps in a student-athlete’s mental health journey.

Seniors, Mia Keim and Yana Parker helped bring The Hilinski´s Hope Foundation to Mason High School.

On May 3rd, 2023 Mason High School (MHS) welcomed Mark and Kym Hilinski of the

Hilinski´s Hope Foundation to speak to students about the importance of student-athlete mental health. Senior Hope Squad members, Keim and Parker planned and organized Hilinski´s Hope for any Mason student who was interested in learning more about mental health. 

The Hilinski family lost their son, Tyler Hilinski, who took his own life in 2018 after spending his high school and college career as a skilled quarterback. Since the loss of their son, the Hilinski family has used their story to encourage students to speak up about their mental health. 

When Keim and Parker were freshmen in Hope Squad they were given the opportunity to listen to guest speaker Kate Fagan speak about a similar aspect of mental health. Parker said this event was part of their inspiration for their project. 

“Because both Yana and I are student-athletes, we saw this as a great opportunity to encourage others to think about the impacts of mental health,” Keim said. 

Keim and Parker worked closely with MHS staff members Tony Affatato and Lauren Wise as well as the Hope Squad advisors to put this event together. Keim said that after months of planning, organizing and getting the word out, they have planned a successful event that they are proud of. 

“We saw Hilinski´s hope as a great opportunity to bring awareness to not just Mason athletes but students in general,” Keim said. 

Because Hope Squad has done impactful work around the community in relation to mental health, advisors are encouraging a new approach to learning about mental health through Senior Capstone projects. Hope Squad Advisors have integrated this project to give students creative freedom to learn more about their interests in mental health. Members can choose to do presentations, volunteer work, events or anything else they can think of. Keim said that she and Parker saw this as a chance to influence other athletes to speak up about their mental health. 

“We need to think of physical health as your mental health too,” Keim said. “If a sports player had an injury, they would feel more comfortable telling a coach but when it comes to mental health, I think it’s a lot harder for athletes to do that.” 

While some athletes may not struggle to express their emotions as much as others, Keim recognizes that some still feel the stigma of upholding a certain reputation. By bringing in Hilinski’s Hope, Keim and Parker hoped to help athletes bring mental health to the forefront. Keim said she was overwhelmed by the number of athletes that showed up to support each other. Keim and Parker both said they feel a large sense of pride when seeing how many of their classmates were impacted by this presentation. 

“We thought it was cool the way she kind of changed the conversation on mental health,” Parker said. “And that is exactly what we want to do. We want to change the conversation.”

By aiming to change the conversation, Keim and Parker are opening the aspect of mental health to a targeted audience of student-athletes. This is their way of encouraging students to prioritize their mental health, especially when their focus is zoned in on their sports. 

“It’s easy to just block out your mental health and be like, I can deal with it later,” Parker said. “That mentality that I just have to get through the season is what causes me to burn out in the end.”

Parker, who dances for a competition dance team, knows firsthand the difficulties that come with being an athlete while still striving to maintain a strong grade point average. Parker said that the unrealistic expectation of perfection has caused athletes to misinterpret their mental health. 

“Everything that is expected of us, our ability to handle things well and be perfect all the time,” Parker said. “Athletes are already feeling the pressure before they even take into account their mental health.” 

MHS Counselor, freshman football and girls track coach, Tony Affatato worked closely with Keim and Parker to organize Hilinski’s Hope. Affatato said it is inspiring to see two seniors he has known since freshman year, make this big of an impact. 

“Those two girls are just incredible,” Affatato said. “For them to put this on and be so driven to bring this awareness to the high school, it is inspiring to watch.” 

By hearing the story of an actual family that was impacted severely by mental health, Affatato said the Hilinski family offers advice on the impacts of reaching out for help. While still grieving the loss of their son, Mark and Kym Hilinski are striving to erase the stigma of athlete mental health all over the country, to high schools, middle schools and colleges. 

“Their target was athletes as well as our student body,” Affatato said. “Athletes or people that deem themselves to be tough, don’t necessarily always want to talk about their mental state.”

Affatato said that the outreach of mental health should be available to anyone who will listen, including the beloved athletes that walk the halls of MHS. 

“Athletes in our culture now have an expectation to always be perceived as strong, or tough,” Affatato said. “Whether you can’t cry when you lose or whatever that might be, they want to take away the stigma of that.”

Junior, Swaathi Reddy, a varsity tennis player, and fellow Hope Squad member, attended the Hilinski’s Hope event in hopes to learn more about the impact of student-athlete mental health. Reddy said that when she saw the parents speak about the death of their son, it opened her eyes to the lasting effects of suicide. 

“It was so much more than a presentation,” Reddy said. “We were seeing a real-life situation where a family was impacted by suicide.”

Hearing the Hilinski’s talk about the real emotions connected to the loss of their son showed those in attendance how important it is to speak up when it comes to mental health. Reddy said the interactive and raw connection the Hilinski’s shared with the audience made the experience so special. 

“[In Hope Squad] we are always talking about the importance of mental health,” Reddy said.”But going to an event like this, you could see the impact of mental health firsthand.”

Seeing the topic of mental health through the eyes of a different perspective gave the audience a new appreciation for those struggling in silence. Reddy said that she will continue to see this new perspective on mental health as she moves into her senior year.

“I think that as a student-athlete, our team and our coaches obviously talked about [mental health] but we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should,” Reddy said. 

By bringing the Hilinski family to MHS, Keim and Parker brought new ideas about the common misconceptions of mental health. Reddy said that the hard work brought by these two seniors does not go unnoticed. 

“We need to normalize that struggling with mental health does not make someone any less of an athlete,” Reddy said. “And by bringing Hilinski´s Hope here, Mia and Yana definitely got that message across.”

Photo by Becca Hunter