COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - For Gamecocks and sports fans, all eyes will be on Williams-Brice Stadium and freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski on Saturday as the Gamecocks prepare to take on No. 2 Alabama, but Hilinski and his family have a mission that stretches far beyond the football field.
Ahead of the game, his parents said they are offering a message of hope during National Suicide Prevention Week and beyond. It is a mission they have taken up after Ryan’s brother, Tyler Hilinski, died by suicide last year.
For them, the game offers a national platform to share their message.
Kym and Mark Hilinski said it starts with the number 3, which was Tyler’s and is now Ryan’s number. Tyler Hilinski was a quarterback at Washington State. After his death, his parents started the organization Hilinski’s Hope.
“The mission, of course, is three parts to it: to raise awareness, eradicate the stigma, and fund programs that support our student-athletes and their mental wellness," Kym Hilinski said.
On Saturday, at the start of the third quarter during the first play, a fan suggested that everyone stand and hold up the number three in an attempt to draw local and national attention to mental health and the need to bring down the stigma that exists behind it.
"We believe pretty strongly that our inability to talk openly about mental health and wellness isn't here. It's not on par with physical health. Just the way we talk about suicide. People are still saying he committed suicide. They don't say you committed cancer. ‘Just shake it off, come on snap out of it.’ We're talking about incredibly complex medical issues and we want our kids and our student-athletes, and our own children to be able to open up about those. Those should not be difficult conversations as they are today. To me, this is just an amplification of that same message. Let's talk about it guys," Mark Hilinski said. “To us, maybe that would be the most enduring thing is it started at Williams-Brice, and it goes to, pick your place. That would tell us, that the message and the work towards bringing down the stigma to talk about mental illness, is being heard."
“There’s going to be a stadium full of people right? But to me it’s the people at home, the kids, the 8-year-old sitting in front of the television that are watching the game with their mom or dad and they’re going to see this crowd hold up three fingers and they may ask their mom or dad, ‘Why are they doing that? What does that mean?’ and it starts a conversation for this younger generation, conversations that don’t typically take place," Kym Hilinksi said. "And it forces people to really check on their mental wellness, check on their children and make sure they’re doing OK and they’re not struggling in silence.”
The Hilinskis opened up about possible mental health warning signs and a message they had for other families.
“I would simply say trust your gut because we can look back and it’s always better to try to help someone that doesn’t need it, than to miss the one guy that does right? Unfortunately no, there’s not always those warning signs, but in Tyler’s case, he never talked about it either. And he may have felt like it was difficult for him to do. Tyler had his ups and downs like all kids his age. His downs got a little lower. He was a little less responsive in terms of the way, his behavior changed noticeable enough for us to come ask him about it, but man he was the brightest guy in the room and smart, smiles, and he could talk you right out of any worry whatsoever,” Mark Hilinski said.
“We’ve talked to professionals, that’s some of the last thoughts that some of these kids have is, ‘I’m going to die now because I don’t want to be a burden on the people whose lives I’m going to destroy and they don’t do, it’s not intentional in most cases to hurt anybody else. They simply are in pain, such a degree of pain that leaving is their best alternative. We think that shouldn’t be the best alternative,” Mark Hilinski said.
Reports state that CTE was discovered in Tyler after his death, the Hilinski’s also spoke on that topic.
“It’s a very complex issue obviously. The data is less than clear. There’s a lot of studies going on around about that, but to suggest that, suicide is related to CTE, in our particular case, this is a different case than we’ve seen publicly. It’s unclear. It doesn’t mean we think CTE had nothing to do with it, we just don’t see it that way,” Mark Hilinski said.
“I do think that CTE played a part in why Tyler died. How much of a part, I don’t know. We’re searching for answers just like so many people out there are,” Kym Hilinski said.
If you would like to speak more about mental illness and access resources through the organization Hilinski’s Hope, click here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.