By DIANE GASPER O'BRIEN
FHSU University Relations and Marketing
Demetrius Chance knows that a huge step in facing and dealing with depression and mental illness is to talk to someone about what’s bothering you. He also knows that is much tougher than it sounds.
The 29-year-old Chance survived childhood abuse, bouts with depression, alcoholism, four suicide attempts and a psychotic breakdown. He doesn’t mind talking about his life – mainly because of the word that now describes him: survivor.
“Mental illness can be a common language if we talk about it,” Chance said. “I have to be able to talk about everything with my life because it helps. I’m an open book.”
Chance is now a happily married college student, majoring in sociology at Fort Hays State University, and a father of five. And he wants to raise awareness about mental illness by squelching the stigmas and stereotypes associated with the disease.
He wants people to know that it’s acceptable to reach out for help to talk about what they’re going through.
“It’s OK for you not to be OK some days,” he said, “but then you have to decide what you are going to do about it,” such as seeking professional help instead of turning to alcohol or drugs.
Chance organized a group of FHSU faculty for a panel discussion as part of a project through the National Alliance on Mental Illness on Campus. His name for the project – “Can You See Me?” – was personal.
“When I was dealing with my trauma and battles with mental illness, I wondered if people were depicting who I was because of my illness,” he said. “Were they seeing me as a person or seeing me for my scars?”
The seven panel members, all from different ethnic groups – including natives of Taiwan, Uganda, Brazil and India – answered pre-written questions while addressing a packed house in the Memorial Union’s Black and Gold Room Tuesday.
The panel discussion followed a moving video with the project title, featuring three students who spoke out about how speaking out ultimately led to a happier life.
One of those students was Chance, who talked about some of the issues he faced while growing up as an adopted child in North Carolina, with his biological father living nearby under the identity of his alcoholic uncle. That led to a troubled young adulthood before he finally sought professional counseling.
Tuesday’s presentation originated from an idea of Ken Windholz, an instructor in FHSU’s Department of Psychology and the advisor for NAMI. Windholz, a licensed clinical psychotherapist for 45 years, has been trying to use NAMI as a vehicle for raising awareness for mental illness for several years.
Chance moved to Hays in 2018 with his wife, Nuchelle – an instructor in the Psychology Department – and their family. A year later, he enrolled at FHSU, joined NAMI and jumped at the opportunity to tell his story.
“My whole life goal now is to help others,” Chance said. “I’m a voice, and that’s the platform I’m trying to build, to encourage others to tell their stories.”
After about nine months of planning and organizing the event, Chance saw his dream become reality. He was deliberate about his panelist choices.
“I wanted to get a diverse perspective of how different ethnic groups deal with psychological trauma,” Chance said.
As a whole, the panelists agreed that everyone deals with psychological pain no matter what their race or nationality.
Windholz and Chance were encouraged by the turnout, and Chance hopes to keep moving forward, maybe land some public speaking opportunities and continue to address breaking down the barriers about mental illness.
“I want to build a platform for the community,” Chance said. “Let’s bring up topics that people don’t feel comfortable talking about – but should – and build on it.”
FHSU offers a variety of support for students, from the Kelly Center (the university’s counseling center) to the Office of the President.
Fort Hays State Vice-President for Student Affairs Joey Linn read a note from President Tisa Mason, who was unable to attend. It talked about a recent summit on campus, titled “Hope in the Heartland,” that involved mental health professionals and legislators.
The gathering, she wrote, raised public awareness about mental health, substance use, and stress in farming and agriculture. A large part of the focus was on de-stigmatizing mental health.
Mason stressed that there is hope around continuing dialogue on that issue.
She applauded the audience for coming together to address the stigma of mental health disorders in various cultures and populations.
“Your participation in this dialogue,” she said, “may be the spark that lights the shadows and brings mental health and healing to those in our community who need it most.”