During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we’re encouraged to end the stigma around discussing mental health issues. And it’s critically important to remember why.

When people feel comfortable talking openly about the struggles that many of us have, then they’re much more likely to seek treatment. And more often than not, when people get the help they need, they can end up with a much better quality of life.

Taking the time to deal with a mental health issue isn’t quick or easy. It’s takes focus and effort. But putting in the time can really make a difference.

Today’s story comes from FRCC student Maia Hawkins, who has struggled with depression for several years—especially during the dark and isolated times of COVID. But Maia has been learning to pay more attention to her mood and mental health—and is getting good at taking care of herself. The results are remarkable for this impressive young woman.

Getting a Diagnosis

“I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder after graduating from high school in 2019, as well as depression,” Maia remembers.

She had been having severe panic attacks—sometimes multiple times a day. “They would make me black out or throw up. At one point, I thought I was having a heart attack and needed immediate medical care.”

It got so bad at one point, she says she barely left her house for months.

“But I wanted to feel better.”

scrabble tiles spelling out "support"

So that’s when she first started going to therapy and taking medication. “That helped astronomically. I haven’t had a severe panic attack like that since.”

She started college that fall, and used the resources her school offered to continue going to therapy. “That really helped. My body was still slowly adjusting to the medication, and we were adjusting the dosage. Eventually I started to feel a lot better.”

Ups and Downs

But it wasn’t all an easy road for Maia. When COVID hit in the spring of 2020, all of her classes went online. She felt more and more isolated. She eventually moved back home from college, which meant she wasn’t seeing her therapist at school anymore.

While home with her parents that summer, she decided to take a one-credit class at FRCC—one that should have been a breeze for her. But her medication was starting to have some side effects she didn’t like, and she decided to stop taking it.

Without the help of her therapist or the medication, she spiraled into depression and failed her course. And that, in turn, put her financial aid in jeopardy.

“I knew the reason I failed that course. I couldn’t physically get up in the morning, and my sleep patterns get way off track when I’m experiencing depression.”

Everything seemed pretty bleak. But she wrote an appeal to the financial aid department explaining her struggle with depression and the impact it had on her ability to focus on her coursework. As it turns out, the appeal was worth making.

A Helping Hand

In an unexpected twist, a financial aid advisor read Maia’s appeal, and reached out to let her know that FRCC offers free mental health counseling. Maia started seeing Licensed Counselor Kathleen Strong at FRCC’s Larimer Campus—with positive results.

“I got straight As that next semester,” Maia smiles.

She says it was simple to access the college’s mental health services. “I went to the mental health counseling office—and they got me set up right away. I did all my intake paperwork online and set up my first appointment right away. After that it was super easy.”

Maia was really motivated. She wanted to feel better—and she says the environment in the counseling office made it pleasant. “It’s a small office, so it’s not intimidating at all.”

How Counseling Helps

Maia has been seeing Kathleen for about 10 months now. She says she looks forward to her appointment each week.

“I know I have someone I can give updates to. Whenever I’m feeling bad, I feel guilty about talking to friends or family about it—I don’t want to be a burden to them. But that’s not the case in going to a therapist.”

“She’s a great listener. She also helps hold me accountable.”

Sometimes Kathleen helps Maia map things out on a white board in her office. “That helps me to get a good look all the things I’m unloading, to help me organize my thoughts. It gives me a perspective that helps.”

Taking Charge

Now Maia sometimes does her own “mind mapping” on her white board at home. “It helps me to stop overthinking. When you see it physically, you don’t need to ruminate anymore. It organizes my thoughts and feelings and helps to connect with the source to make a change.”

On her own, Maia also does a therapy journal. “And I’ve used social media as my mental health education platform. Most of my feed is all about mental health, educating myself, learning how to self soothe and techniques to regulate my nervous system.”

Some of the self-soothing techniques that have helped Maia are:

Now 21, Maia is on track to earn an associate degree from FRCC in integrative health. “I’m also learning a lot in my classes,” she adds. “ “I love school and I love my coursework. I’m looking forward to sharing that with my future clients.”

The Work Is Ongoing

As with many things that require an ongoing effort, Maia’s ups and downs aren’t over. This spring semester was hard for her at times.

“It’s been an uphill battle,” she recalls. “I was in a relationship that was really unhealthy. I stopped working and started isolating more and more. Things that used to make me happy became a chore like eating and shower. I was losing weight.”

But she was still determined to be happy. She talked to her therapist about possibly starting medication again. (She has since decided to stick with just therapy for now—and that seems to be working for her.)

She got out of that relationship, and says, “My mental health has flipped. I’m eating full meals, sleeping. I feel a lot healthier. I have more friends now.”

“I feel like anything that does come up, I’m able to manage it because I’m so focused on myself now.”

Advice for Others

You are not alone

Maia hopes other people who may be struggling can learn something from her experience.

“This is an illness, so seeking treatment is always a good thing to do,” she adds.

“Knowing some of these techniques prevents me from getting to the point of complete panic. It’s an empowering feeling.”

She also says not to be afraid if a professional recommends that you might need medication. “You don’t have to be on meds forever. If you’re really not feeling well, it might help you get to a better place—a place where you can find other techniques to care for yourself.”

“It’s not a life sentence. You can stop the meds when you’re ready with the help of your doctor.”

A Bright Future

Maia plans to wrap up her associate degree at the end of 2022. But she’s found a passion for learning about health and wellness—and plans to keep exploring.

“I fell in love with learning about the nervous system through an anatomy class in my program. I love how everything works together—how mental health connects with physical health.”

She’s considering continuing on with a certificate in wellness coaching next spring—and thinks about eventually transferring to a four-year university to study biology or neuroscience, as well as dance. “I want to study dance therapy, and combine my passion for helping people along with my passion for music, dance and movement.”

Her final words of encouragement for other people who may be struggling:

“Reach out to every single resource you can find. Be open to people in your life. People are so willing to help you.”

And—as Maia reminds us—it’s OK to let them.

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