Trigger warning: mental illness, suicide
Mental health has always been a passion of mine. My family has a history of mental illness, and I am not ashamed to admit that I have struggled with my mental health to various degrees throughout my life. Growing up in the highly competitive academic atmosphere that comes with living next to a top ranked university, I watched many of my classmates develop mental health conditions, and my community experienced multiple teen suicides as students cracked under the pressure to be perfect. When I was in high school, my mental health involvement mostly consisted of spreading positivity through social media. When I came to college, I knew I wanted to make as big of an impact as possible in my community, working for my favorite cause.
NAMI has a wealth of statistics about the prevalence of mental health conditions in the United States. About one in five Americans experience mental illness each year. Only 41 percent of Americans living with mental health conditions receive treatment, and most people wait years between when they first experience symptoms and when they finally seek help, partly due to the stigma associated with mental illness. Three quarters of chronic mental illness begin by age 24, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24. To lower these statistics, it is vital for young adults to get involved in advocacy efforts. Mental health conditions are common, yet there is so much shame associated with them that people feel more comfortable internalizing their pain than reaching out to get the support they need. I feel passionate about mental health causes because increasing access to resources and reducing the stigma associated with getting help benefits everyone, whether they live with a mental health condition or not.
Every year, I participate in and fundraise for my local Out of the Darkness Walk benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and table at the walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, commonly referred to as NAMI, to inform others about mental health conditions, the stigma surrounding them, and how they can contribute to mental health advocacy locally. I have also become a member and served in leadership positions for both my local and university NAMI chapters. Through my university chapter involvement, including currently serving as Vice President, I have become a campus leader in mental health education and advocacy and have been able to spread awareness of what positive mental health looks like, what resources are available to students and faculty who may be struggling, and the importance of ending the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.
As my local NAMI chapter’s Ending the Silence Program Coordinator, and Connection Support Group Facilitator, I make connections with people in the greater Tuscaloosa community from a diverse range of ages and backgrounds. Whether I am talking to high schoolers or retirees, I want the participants in my programs to know that it gets better, that they are not alone, and that help is out there. I am also a field advocate for my local AFSP chapter, which has provided me with the opportunity to meet with state legislators and discuss what can be done to improve funding for the mental health resources and increase suicide prevention training for state employees, including teachers. Thanks to my community mental health involvement, I have gotten the opportunity to meet leaders in mental health from around the state and prominent figures in our local community and discuss areas of mental healthcare where my state is making great progress, as well as facets of our mental healthcare system which still need help.
When I graduate, I plan to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology specializing in adolescents with mental illness and become a licensed therapist. During my time in college, I have participated in extracurriculars that have given me clinical experience and directly shown me the impact of mental healthcare. I am involved in two research labs that each investigate the effects of mental health-related programs on their target populations in the community. Art therapy with persons with dementia and cognitive behavioral therapy with fifth graders could not sound more different, but they are both incredibly rewarding projects that enrich my life daily. This year I was appointed to the JED Foundation Student Advisory Council. By serving on the SAC, I can give input to JED about their national mental health programs targeted to high schoolers and college students to make them as effective and relevant as possible.
The community outreach I have participated in for the past three years has enhanced my college experience and has shaped me into the person I am today. Everyone’s life matters, and I believe it is important to use your skills and passions to improve the lives of others whenever possible. My passion for mental health has opened doors for me that have allowed me to impact people from a wide range of backgrounds, many of whom I would probably not have encountered on my own. It is quite rewarding to me when I can give others the knowledge and tools they need to manage their own mental health and better support others.