DURHAM, N.C. -- 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."