All It Takes Is One Person

Written on by Leesa Forst

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Since its establishment in 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has brought awareness to the challenges faced by millions of individuals living with mental health conditions and to celebrate recovery. As President Biden (2024) stated, it is also a time “…we recognize the bravery and resilience of the tens of millions of Americans living with mental health conditions, and we show our gratitude for the dedicated mental health professionals and devoted loved ones who stand by them every step of the way.” Voice and Vision’s mission aligns with this proclamation and is dedicated to eradicating stigma, extending support, promoting education, and advocating for services that prioritize the well-being of individuals and families affected by mental illness.

I want to share my personal experience with living, working, and attending college as someone with mental illness. I also will share the power of peer services in supporting individuals with mental health conditions to succeed in their college education.

At the age of 18, I received my first mental health diagnosis. Although it was a relief to finally put a name to the struggles I was experiencing and knowing it could be treated, it was also devasting and made me feel like a complete failure. My dream of going to college to be a pediatric oncologist was shattered. There was no way I could handle the stress of college as I could barely get out of bed each morning. Two years later, after my first hospitalization and getting on the right medication, I decided to give college a try and took a course in a subject of interest for enjoyment purposes. I did well, and it was then I realized I wanted to become a social worker to help others who have similar challenges to my own. My parents talked me out of it because they did not make enough money or think I could handle the stress that line of work can bring. At the time I was living in Florida and continued to take classes in between hospitalizations and had to withdraw on several occasions.

I moved up north in my early twenties and continued to take courses at the local community college, where I learned about a strengths-based community mental health service called Psychiatric Rehabilitation. I never felt surer and more excited about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a part of the vision that steers away from the diagnosis-focused approach and promotes recovery and community integration. At the time, Rutgers University was the only institution offering an associate degree in Psychiatric Rehabilitation (back then it was called Psychosocial Rehabilitation). I enrolled in the Rutgers associate degree program in 2015 and will be graduating from their master’s program in May 2025.

While attending the associate’s program, I formed close relationships with the faculty/professors, and they were very accommodating to the extra support I needed to help me be successful in my courses. I took two classes at a time and did very well the first year. I received another mental health diagnosis the following year which resulted in me having to withdraw on several occasions. I remember when I had to withdraw for the third (and thankfully last) time, I wanted to quit college because I felt I was not cut out for it. I felt alienated from other students, and I couldn’t handle the stress that it brought. One of my professors at the time found out that I was not going to continue and asked to meet with me. He helped me identify barriers, learn skills to overcome them, and offered me his support throughout the semester if I decided to return. I remember he sat me down and said, “We’re going to get through this together, you are not alone, and we will work as a team so that you can fulfill your goal to be the amazing counselor I know you will be.” And so, we did just that. I continue to work with him on research projects and other endeavors as a way to give back. If it wasn’t for him, I would not have gotten this far with my education and have accomplished everything I have working in the mental health field. I decided to become a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) so that I could help individuals with mental health conditions part-time as I continue my education to obtain a master’s degree in Psychiatric Rehabilitation counseling.

When a previous supervisor forwarded a job opening for a College Plus/Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) Associate at Voice & Vision, I thought “This is my chance to be that person for other students, like my professor was for me,” and I immediately applied. I am happy to say that I’m doing just that. I support individuals in a variety of different ways that are individualized to each person’s needs and in a way that helps each be successful in obtaining educational goals. When I share my lived experience as a college student, the challenges I’ve faced and how I’ve overcome them, students feel less alone, and they see that recovery and reaching their goal is possible. It instills hope and motivation to keep going.

I have learned and truly believe that all it takes is one person, whether it’s a friend, teacher, or a CPS, to see the potential and spark in us that helps us see that within ourselves. Almost all of us can remember one person in our lives who saw something in us that we didn’t see within ourselves and has helped us achieve great things. It is truly an honor and opportunity that I oftentimes get to be that person for my students.

To learn more about the College Plus and TAP programs, please visit us at: https://voiceandvisioninc.org/college-plus/

Reference: Biden, J. (2024, April 30). A proclamation on National Mental Health Awareness Month, 2024. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2024/04/30/a-proclamation-on-national-mental-health-awareness-month-2024/


Guest Author: Leesa Forst, CPS, is the College Plus/TAP Program Associate at Voice and Vision, Inc. Leesa is also a research participant and graduate student at Rutgers University School of Health Professions fulfilling her master’s degree in Psychiatric Rehabilitation Counseling. She is dedicated to helping individuals with mental health conditions find their voice and see their greatness. Leesa passionately advocates that recovery is possible for all and people with mental illness can learn, work, and live meaningful, productive lives in the community just like everyone else.

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