By the time Adam and Caitlin Thielen visited the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital on a fact-finding mission this summer, most of the particulars of how the couple would launch a charitable foundation were already in place.
They knew the time was now, with Thielen coming off a Pro Bowl year and heading into the second season of a four-year deal with the Vikings. They also knew they wanted the first endeavor, of what they hoped would be a wide-ranging charitable effort, to be located at the hospital that has enjoyed a decades-long relationship with the Vikings and their players.
They just didn’t know where they wanted to focus their energy — until they started in on a series of meetings that summer day. Then, in the behavioral health unit of the hospital, their cause found them.
“It was just pouring out of [people] — ‘We need this, we need someone, we need help,’ ” Adam said. “We hadn’t really thought of it, until we just felt that kind of passion from people — ‘Hey, we need help.’ ”
And so, the wide receiver and his wife launched the Thielen Foundation on Tuesday by shining a spotlight on one of the nation’s most pernicious, and yet perhaps most elusive, health crises. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 15 million U.S. children and young adults — or nearly one in five — have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. Of that group, an estimated 12 million aren’t receiving treatment.
Children’s mental health issues have entered public discourse in recent years, because of their role in a number of school shootings and studies tracking the rise of teenage depression rates. But widespread awareness of the problem remains somewhat difficult to attain, because of the private (and often imprecise) nature of some mental and behavioral conditions and the ongoing stigma about the issue.
“I don’t want to say [it’s] harder [to obtain philanthropic support [for mental and behavioral health issues], but it maybe is less frequent,” said Mandy Seymour, the senior director of behavioral health services at the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital. “I think what was really unique about Adam and Caitlin’s gift is the focus on behavioral health, which sometimes can be overlooked. When we found out, we were really surprised and shocked, and just really excited.”
The Thielen Foundation announced an initial $100,000 pledge to pediatric behavioral health at the hospital. The foundation, which aims to help at-risk youth in the Twin Cities, will likely expand beyond its work at the hospital. But for their first step, the Thielens chose to champion an issue they heard crying out for an advocate.
“It’s such an overlooked area, and it’s such a big problem in the world today,” Caitlin said. “When [the hospital brought it up,] we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
Wanting to make an impact
Thielen had his breakout 69-catch season in 2016, in his final year before restricted free agency. The four-year deal the Vikings gave him after that season, which included $10 million in guaranteed money, served both to set the Minnesota State Mankato product up in a strong financial position and to ensure he wouldn’t be leaving his home state any time soon.
The Thielens bought a house in Woodbury, and Adam earned his first Pro Bowl nod with a 91-catch season in 2017. His platform established, he knew now was the time to put it to good use.
“We didn’t want to just do it to do it,” Adam said. “We wanted to actually make an impact.”
The area where they chose to get started, though, didn’t offer simple solutions.
Seymour said nearly as many of the hospital’s patients are there for mental and behavioral health reasons as they are for physical issues. Even as older children make up a sizable portion of the patients in the behavioral health unit, it’s not unusual for the hospital to see young children dealing with trauma, as well.
They stay an average of three to seven days, though some can be hospitalized longer. When the hospital discharges a patient, it does so with a plan for community and social resources to help treat issues outside the hospital.
“Our beds are filled,” Seymour said. “We have no shortage of patients, and we’re just so grateful we’re able to provide services to that population. There isn’t an organization like us in the area.”
The Thielens dived into research about mental health issues, consulting hospital staff about programming ideas. Caitlin found a natural connection between her love of yoga and its effectiveness as part of a treatment program for behavioral health issues. The Thielen Foundation donated yoga mats, journals and other comfort items to the hospital as part of its kickoff event, and Caitlin said she hopes to help develop further yoga programming at the hospital.
Their work, in serving a group with varied backgrounds and myriad issues, figures to keep evolving, as Kyle Rudolph knows.
When the Vikings tight end and his wife, Jordan, began work on the 2,500-square-foot therapeutic play space they opened at the hospital last year, they had assumed they would mostly be serving patients with physical ailments and diseases. They quickly learned how much they could help behavioral health patients — and how often those patients can be overlooked.
“If you think of a children’s hospital, you think about little kids,” Rudolph said. “You’re not thinking about a 16-year-old that has a mental health issue that’s there for that reason. We really try — like they [the Thielens] are doing — to shine a little light on that, as well.”
Mental health in the NFL
As Thielen and Rudolph work to serve patients at the children’s hospital, they are well aware of the mental health struggles some players battle in the NFL — which were accentuated this summer when former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin opened up to Sports Illustrated about the anxiety issues that plagued him through his NFL career.
“For so long, it was one of those things you just didn’t talk about; you just kind of dealt with it on your own,” Rudolph said. “Percy and [Seahawks receiver] Brandon Marshall are shining a light on something that’s real. They’re doing a great job of bringing a light to something that guys in our industry are dealing with on a daily basis.”
Said Thielen: “A lot of times, it gets bottled in. As athletes, and as men, sometimes we hold that stuff in. But I will say this: As a competitor, when you put so much into it, you work so hard, and things don’t go well for you, it can be a depressing time. Caitlin had some [struggles as a soccer player] in college. It can be tough mentally, so you have to make sure you’re relying on the people around you. I think that’s a big thing we want to bring to this foundation — making sure kids understand that a lot of it is the people you put around you.”
Thielen’s own improbable rise from Division II football to NFL stardom has provided Caitlin and him with a moment where people are listening to them. They don’t intend to take it lightly.
“I’m so excited the Thielens are paving the way,” Seymour said, “for more awareness to the need.”