College Football Mental Health Week: Baylor University, non-profit raising awareness about mental health among student athletes

All week long during KWTX@4, News 10 Anchor Megan Boyd discussed and explored the topic of mental health among student athletes
Published: Oct. 3, 2022 at 6:27 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WACO, Texas (KWTX) - From October 1 to October 8, more than 100 colleges and universities are participating in College Football Mental Health Week, put on by the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation including Baylor University.

Kim and Mark Hilinski started a foundation after their son Tyler, a quarterback at Washington State, died by suicide in 2018.

Hilinski’s Hope

Kym and Mark Hilinski started the foundation after their son Tyler, a quarterback at Washington State, died by suicide in 2018.

“Tyler was the happiest, most fun, funny, great to be around. Kym and I say we love all our boys but we really loved Tyler,” Mark told KWTX in a one-on-one interview.

“We never heard one conversation about what he was struggling with, we never got a note he never saw a physician, didn’t tell anybody, whether that was because of the stigma or worried about losing his spot on the team, we’re not sure,” he explained.

In his honor, the two started the foundation and College Football Mental Health week with the hope of raising awareness for mental health resources for student athletes like Tyler, who may be struggling in silence.

“We put these boxes together with helmet decals, lapel pins, patches, headbands, cheer ribbon and our wrist bands with the suicide hotline number on them. We ship these boxes of hope all around the country and to see universities step up and join our mission and partner with us, I just think it says so much about the universities and truly how much they care about their student athletes, not just how they perform on the field but they truly care about them mind body and soul,” Kym Hilinski told KWTX.

Every year, the foundation partners with more universities but say Baylor’s partnership is particularly special.

“We got an email from someone in Baylor Athletics our first year that said our head football coach *has to be part of College Football Mental Health Week,” Kym explained.

“We said “its Thursday night, FedEx is closed, you’re traveling to West Virginia, its impossible to get them there” but that turned out not to be true. We found a currier that came to our home in South Carolina picked up the helmet decals, brought them to West Virginia and not literally, but as the team was going onto the field they were slapping the helmet decals on,” Kym said.

“We love that Baylor and Baylor Athletics, the Athletic Director, Mack Rhoades, and Head Football Coach, Dave Aranda, is so behind taking care of the mental health of their student athletes that just says so much about how much they care about their student athletes and we love them for that and that will be one of our favorite stories as we move forward this is our third year, we’ll be doing it forever but Baylor is very big in our hearts for that,” Kym said.

Megan Boyd interviews Monique Marsh-Bell, the Associate Athletic Director for Mental Health Services at Baylor University.

Baylor Athletics and Mental Health

“We noticed that student athletes weren’t utilizing counseling services on campus,” Dr. Monique Marsh-Bell, the Associate Athletic Director for Mental Health Services at Baylor told KWTX.

In a 2021 study conducted by the NCAA, it found less than 50% of student athletes said they wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus.

She says she and athletic director Mack Rhoades worked together to address the issue at Baylor.

“We started a “Let’s Talk” program, it was drop in program and I was just sitting at a desk for half a day every week and it was so popular with student athletes and coaches coming for consultation on how to help their student athletes that Mack made it a full time position out of it,” Marsh-Bell explained.

Her role has now expanded in a three person team providing mental health services across the athletic department.

“I think student athletes are often forgotten in the mental health conversation because they’re sometimes seen as super human,” Marsh-Bell said.

“We see what they do on the field and on the court and so we’re amazed and wowed by that but we forget that they’re also college students. They’re 18-22 they’re dealing with all the things typical college students deal with from adjustment to academics, social things, and in addition to that they’re dealing with the pressures and time commitment of sport and those things together sometimes make things more difficult for student athletes and put more pressure on them but we tend to not think of them that way,” Marsh-Bell explained.

They have helped the university get involved in multiple national and regional mental health campaigns, including Big 12 Mental Health Week and College Football Mental Health week, which is going on now.

“Every competition this week will have a mental health focus. There will be in-venue information about mental health, we’ll be tabling giving out green ribbon and wrist bands for people to show support, in addition to our social media campaign,” Marsh-Bell said.

But beyond the major campaigns her office is busy every day working with student athletes.

“We provide counseling services to student athletes, we have them fill out mental health screeners regularly throughout the semester which we review and check on them as needed. We provide education not just to the students but to the coaches and to staff to make sure everyone is aware and knows how to identify mental health concerns and how to report those things and who to get the athlete connected with,” she said.

Just last week, Baylor announced the public launch of an effort to build philanthropic support focused on growing mental health services for Baylor’s student-athletes. The launch comes in tandem with a gift from Jarred and Kay Nan Sloan of Houston supporting Baylor Athletics and resourcing Athletics Mental Health Services (AMHS).

“We are grateful to Jarred and Kay Nan Sloan for their sincere interest in supporting Baylor’s student-athletes in transformative ways and for their thoughtfulness in challenging others to come alongside them in this effort,” said Mack B. Rhoades IV, Baylor Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. “Baylor Athletics is committed to fostering a caring community, free of stigma, where our student-athletes’ mental health is given the same care as their physical wellbeing. We celebrate the generosity of the Sloans, and we hope other members of our Baylor Family will follow their lead in giving to the Baylor Student Athlete Mental Health Endowment.”

For their support of the Athletics Mental Health Services, the Sloans chose to give immediate-use funds, providing administrators significant resources for the current needs of the program, as well as an endowment that creates a permanent source of annual funding for the program, the first such resource supporting mental health initiatives within Baylor Athletics. The fund was named the Student Athlete Mental Health Endowment to encourage the Baylor Family to give of their resources to help the more than 500 students who participate in Baylor Athletics’ 19 intercollegiate athletics teams.

“This will help us afford to bring in speakers, I can talk to them all day but when they see someone who is in the space that they want to be like a professional athlete or a peer talking to them about mental health it really hits differently,” Marsh-Bell added.

“We also know that technology is big for our student athletes so we’re investing in mental health resources that are innovative, things like Calm and Head Space and other apps and technology that can help them because we can’t always be with them but making sure that they have access to mental health care in a variety of ways.

Former Baylor Star Weighs In:

Tevin “Sweet Feet” Reese says he struggled with his mental health during his time at Baylor. The prolific receiver graduated in 2013 and had a short stint in the NFL before becoming a high school coach.

“It came with a lot of anxiety to perform at your highest level every single day every single minute of your life, it can be depressing at times,” Reese explained.

Before most of the mental health resources were within the athletic department, Reese says he put a lot of pressure on himself, with aspirations to be in the NFL.

“From a football standpoint, everyone is a macho man on the field so you don’t want to feel like you need to talk to someone because you feel like you can do it all on your own. But sometimes it gets overwhelming and bottle up and a lot of times when you end up releasing it its not for the good,” he explained. “Its hard to open up and be vulnerable to say you’re having issues so you handle it all yourself.”

He says at the time, he felt like talking about what he was feeling would show others that he was human while he was trying to prove to NFL scouts that he’s the toughest man on and off the field.

“No that I’m not an athlete I can see what that did to me,” Reese said.

Reese says after football he realized he had to start getting the things he was feeling off his chest in order to feel better. He says he struggled with identity once he was done in the NFL, not knowing what to do with his life.

“You get hit with the reality of ‘who are you’ so you have to set aside time for yourself to figure out who you want to be in life,” Reese said.

In hind site, he says had the programs that are at Baylor now been around when he was playing he thinks he would have taken full advantage.

“I would have used it everyday they would have gotten tired of seeing me up there,” he joked.

“I encourage every athlete to utilize those programs, it would have helped me out a lot it would let me play more freely on the football field versus going out there every single play feeling like I had a lot of pressure on myself,” Reese said.

“Get it off your chest so you can go be a better athlete because ultimately if you’re not a better person, if you’re not in the right mental state, you won’t be able to be the best athlete you could be,” Reese preached to current student athletes “Don’t feel like you’re less of a person because you need to use those programs.”

“Its the biggest issue in college sports” Jimbo Fisher and Dave Aranda talk mental health:

Dave Aranda at Baylor and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M say mental health is a critical component to how they coach and lead their respective teams.

They say the stresses and pressures on college athletes are higher than they’ve ever been.

“Let me tell you something in todays time that is the biggest issue in college sports far to none,” Jimbo Fisher said during College Football Mental Health Week.

“It is a major major major issue with what’s going on,” Fisher added.

He and his staff along with those at Baylor and the 115 other schools partnering with Hilinski’s Hope are putting mental health among college football players put under the microscope this week.

“Its good that there’s a breakthrough that everyone recognizes that its a way important piece,” Aranda said.

Aranda says he wants his players to know the conversations are important

“Feeling a certain way or to feeling down or like you’re not good enough, its ok to talk about,” Aranda explained.

But he says there’s more work to be done. While the opportunity for dialogue is there he says he often hears his players say that they don’t have struggles to address. but he knows its there.

“I think a push through still, is to get it to where that’s me that’s you that’s everybody [talking about mental health],” Aranda explained.

Fisher adds that the pressure of the game is out of control these days and that social media is the driver.

“What they read what’s out there every day, what people say every day, you put yourself out there to be scrutinized and criticized and those young kids get it constantly,” Fisher explained.

Both coaches are raising awareness and working to teach their athletes that life is bigger than the game.

“You think about the person over the player. That’s really kind of everything,” Aranda said.

“Its a big problem for those kids and its a lot bigger than we even think and know,” Fisher added.

Mental health conversations starting in high school:

Waco High Head football coach Linden Heldt says the way he has coached over the last 20 years has changed, with a bigger focus on mental health now.

“Athletics has changed a lot,” Heldt explained. “Our kids are dealing with a lot of different variables, so you have to get engaged on a variety of things. The kids that come and sit in my office are not maybe what they were 20 years ago but its something that isn’t ever going to go away so we have to have a plan to help our student athletes,” he explained.

Heldt says the conversation of mental health among high school student athletes is different than what’s happening at the high school level since his athletes aren’t in a setting where they’re removed from home and isolated. However, he says that can bring its own challenges as kids face struggles at home.

“Some of our kids have challenges within their homes and so mental health is in the forefront of what we talk about with our players,” he explained.

“Its something that as a whole we’re seeing more and more focus given to it because we’re seeing a bigger and bigger need for it,” Heldt said.

His wife is the head counseling and social and emotional development in Waco ISD, which he says helps him understand ways to talk to his students.

“I get to have a lot more of these conversations than your average football coach,” Heldt said.

“We’re talking to them about lifestyle patterns, helping create structure in their lives that can provide good healthy patterns for living,” he said.

Heldt says while his structure at Waco High has a lot of athletics, he says it also has a lot about life.

He also says for some kids who have some kind of struggle at home, rather than being the burdon, athletics becomes the place that helps heal mental health struggles they may have from other aspects of life.

“They can be coached they can be mentored through athletics to provide themselves a strong mental background or a stable environment by which they can move forward,” Heldt explained.

“We want them around people, engaging others, having to work through wins and losses and high intensity situations so when life hits and they’re married with a high intense job that they’re able to push through those things mentally,” he added.