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Families of college students who died by suicide unite for 'powerful moment' of healing

College suicide is a leading concern among mental health experts. Families who lived through it share their stories.
/ Source: TODAY

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to for additional resources.   

Families with a shared nightmare — the death of their college students through suicide — hope their stories can prevent more loss.

On Tuesday, the parents of college athletes Katie Meyer, Arlana Miller, Morgan Rodgers and Tyler Hilinski spoke to TODAY about the legacy of their children.

"It’s a powerful moment for all of us to be together," Gina Meyer, the mother of Katie, tells NBC correspondent Stephanie Gosk on TODAY. 

Gina and Steven Meyer’s 22-year-old daughter was a soccer goalie at Stanford University in California, where she studied international relations and history. In March, Katie died of suicide

At the time, Gina told NBC News that the "horrific" ordeal was "a parent’s worst nightmare" and there were "no red flags" about their daughter’s mental health. Still, her parents have wondered whether Katie struggled under academic and sports commitments. 

Although there are risk factors for suicide (substance abuse, depression, anxiety disorders are several listed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), experts say there aren’t clear warning bells. As Julie Cerel, a licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Kentucky previously told NBC News, "Suicide doesn’t discriminate."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34.

And a study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) found rates of anxiety, mental exhaustion and depression among student athletes are 1.5 to two times higher than before the pandemic. But less than half of men’s and women's athletes said they would “agree” or “strongly agree” as to whether they would feel comfortable visiting a college mental health center. 

Kurt Rodgers remembers his “rock star” daughter Morgan as having a “charismatic win-the-room-over” personality. 

In 2017 before her sophomore year at Duke University, the lacrosse player injured her knee and had surgery and intensive rehab. Unable to get back on the field, she privately dealt with depression and anxiety. In July 2019, Morgan died by suicide.

"The elephant in the room, this is mental illness," Morgan's mother Dona tells NBC News.

College football quarterback Tyler Hilinski's parents Kym and Mark didn't observe any verbal indication that son, who attended Washington State University, was suffering before his death by suicide in 2018. 

"There weren’t really any verbal signs from Tyler to us or to anybody at Washington State that he was suffering," Kym Hilinski told TODAY months after her 21-year-old son's death.

An autopsy found Tyler had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder caused by head trauma that's only diagnosed post-mortem. Researchers are starting to wonder whether CTE is more common than previously believed — in a small 2017 study published in JAMA, CTE was identified in 99 percent of brains belonging to former NFL players. 

"I think we kind of felt like, if this can happen to Tyler, it can happen to anybody,” his father Mark tells Gosk. 

Arthur Miller also lost his 19-year-old daughter Arlana Miller to suicide in May, during her freshman year at Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana. 

Arlana was a cheerleader studying agriculture, according to the school.

Arthur, a pastor, said his daughter was "very talented" adding, "Whatever she wanted to do, she could have done."

The families have channeled pain into prevention.

  • Mark and Kym founded Hilinski's Hope Foundation to "educate, advocate, and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness." The organization is a bridge between students and mental health tools and assists universities in implementing best practices.
  • Morgan's Message wants mental wellness to be taken as seriously as physical wellness. "We aim to expand the dialogue on mental health by normalizing conversations, empowering those who suffer in silence, and supporting those who feel alone," according to the website.
  • Katie's Save is a university policy that requires schools to send an email to an ally (chosen by the student) if that student is hospitalized for a physical injury, prescribed medication by a mental health professional or has been placed on (or is facing) academic probation, to name just three scenarios covered by the agreement. Students can also opt out of the agreement at any time.

“Our athletes really are under so much pressure, and they grind every single day,” Kym Hilinski tells Gosk. “They’re up at 6:00 a.m., they’re going to practice, they follow that with classes … I don’t think society really sees ... the commitment and the sacrifices that all of our athletes make.”