When J. Danee Sergeant speaks, you listen.
Her voice is colored by the harshly-bristled paint brush that is experience. The words themselves paint a different picture: struggle characterizes the journey, but at the end of the day the message is one of hope and empowerment.
Several students gathered in the University Student Center ballroom Thursday for the opportunity to hear her speak.
Sergeant is a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau, which is a “nonprofit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking,” according to the website.
The event was hosted by the Wellness Center to promote mental health as a part of National Suicide Prevention Week.
“The conversation needs to begin before the crisis arises,” Sergeant said. She went on to explain how the stigma attached with mental health issues, particularly psychiatric disorders, can make them seem like taboo.
One of the primary goals of Active Minds is to destigmatize mental health by opening up the conversation.
“Everybody has feelings and they’re real and they’re valid,” Sergeant said.
According to Active Minds, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, claiming the lives of 1,100 students every year. More than 90 percent of the people who commit suicide “have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death,” yet many of them go undiagnosed and therefore untreated.
When Sergeant speaks about these issues, she isn’t merely addressing them from an academic or theoretical perspective. She is someone who has lived them, survived and is a walking testament of one’s ability to overcome.
Sergeant is no stranger to adversity. She lost her adoptive mother when she was young, and her second adoptive mother passed away when she was just 18 years old. She has been bullied and teased for the majority of her life and her good friend, Webster, shot and killed himself.
They were just kids at the time. She remembers being envious: he made the feelings stop.
One thing led to another, and before she knew it, she was abusing drugs and spiraled into addiction.
“Once you cross that line, and everybody’s line is different, it becomes real difficult to get back on your own,” Sergeant said. “It’s not impossible, but very difficult.”
For this reason, she is adamant that students take advantage of the resources around them. A 28-day treatment program was a turning point for Sergeant. It didn’t happen overnight, but Sergeant began to find support groups that worked for her. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder allowed her to make sense of her world and feelings and mood changes that inhabited it.
Sergeant was inspired to give back to the community that helped save her life.
She defied the odds and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, focusing on substance abuse, from Southern University at New Orleans. She is currently a graduate student at Fordham University pursuing a master’s in social work.
For Zoe Hay, the president of Providing Education, Empowerment, Resources & Support (P.E.E.R.S) it all goes back to the stigma of mental health in our culture today.
“Events like this foster a community of support,”said Hay. “If kids know about the resources, then they have the choice to use them. They don’t have to tough it out on their own.”
Many resources exist on campus and are provided by the Wellness Center, such as group and individual counseling, psychological testing and screenings, as well as limited nutritional services.
Perhaps one of the most popular and easy-to-use resources is the Therapist Assisted Online program. TAO is “a seven-week, interactive, web-based program that provides assistance to help overcome anxiety and depression.”
There are also free online mental health screenings are available at http://screening.mentalhealthscreening.org/USFSP
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
For more information on services provided by the Wellness Center, you can call them at (727) 873-4422 or visit them at the Student Life Center, room 2200.