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SIUE Student Publicly Braves Stigma to Advocate for Mental Health Awareness

2 October 2015, 10:14 AM

Theresa San Luis is pursuing her master's in public administration at SIUEFirst impressions of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville graduate student Theresa San Luis may include adjectives like personable, driven, passionate and talented. After all, she holds two bachelors’, a master’s in communication, and is slated to graduate from SIUE in December with her master’s in public administration (MPA).

But there is more to Theresa than what meets the eye. Perhaps the best word to describe her is resilient.

Theresa has schizoaffective disorder, which has facets of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and works diligently to manage her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorder tendencies. She was diagnosed with the condition as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, but she says her symptoms date back to preschool.

“Who ever anticipates when they’re a child that they would ask to see a psychiatrist?” she said. “In preschool it was very difficult to nap. In grade school, junior high and high school, I would have thinking spells periodically where I would get stuck in thought patterns that were extremely irrational. I kept a lot of those signs to myself because I did not know how to express or talk about it.”

She recalls being able to function all those years by re-directing herself from her anxious, obsessive thoughts. But eventually her condition became too controlling, growing completely to the form of psychosis.

“No one should ever have to get to that point of feeling humiliated, helpless, non-functioning,” Theresa recalled. “Under the guidance of the University psychiatrist at Notre Dame, I decided to be admitted to St. Anthony’s Behavioral Medicine in Indiana where I was diagnosed.”

Despite her diagnosis, Theresa has faced her mental illness head on, determined to pursue her dreams and publicly advocate for others plagued by such conditions. She has learned to manage her care and balance her daily life thanks to her faith, a strong support team and proper medication.

“I see an anxiety disorder specialist and a Christian counselor on a regular basis,” she explained. “I see a psychiatrist and take medication upon his recommendation. I also have coping skills. I try to have healthy, balanced relationships and goals in life. I stay active and try not to dwell on the negative.”

Theresa San Luis and her SIUE mentor Lora MilesAnother positive influence for Theresa during her academic career at SIUE has been her mentor Lora Miles, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs. Theresa and Lora were paired through the University’s Students with Disabilities Mentorship Program, a collaboration between Disability Support Services (DSS) and Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

“DSS has more than 400 students with disabilities, and has connected interested students with faculty and staff volunteers to serve as mentors,” explained Miles. “I directly supervise DSS, and interact with many of these students regarding their struggles and help them navigate the academic environment.”

“It takes a very special person with a great deal of patience and understanding to put up with me!” Theresa exclaimed. “Lora Miles is especially that and more. She’s incredibly accessible in terms of talking about smart decisions with my education and career. But she’s also been a friendly reference for me to vent and express some struggles I face as a mentally, emotionally and sometimes spiritually challenged person.

“For the longest time, I didn’t believe in myself and felt limited because I was diagnosed with a mental illness, but Lora helped me regain my sense of empowerment.”

“I feel being a mentor is one of the intrinsic values of working at an educational institution,” Miles said. “Sometimes these students just need the extra attention and someone to help keep them focused on their goals. Theresa has a lot to offer no matter what she decides to do in life.”

Theresa has accomplished a noteworthy amount of personal goals and carries a multitude of academic and career honors and credentials. Still, she is the first to admit she has had her share of setbacks and struggles, including hospitalization.

All of her experiences, both positive and negative, have been the driving force behind her pursuit of higher education and personal achievement. She believes her education and professional background as a journalist have equipped her with the strength to be a resounding voice and powerful advocate for mental health awareness.

“I’ve dreamed of making advocacy a full-time job,” she said. “All of this suffering – there has to be a purpose. I have been hurtfully rejected, mocked and even told it was my fault. But the more I gain composure within myself and grow strong, the more I can lend a voice to the movement.

“I want people with mental illness to know they’re not alone, and they don’t have to be ashamed. They can reach out. They can lead a life that is far more productive and far less painful. Mental anguish is not fun, but recovery and pursuing your dreams are!”

Theresa is already publicly sharing her story and raising awareness about mental health. She is actively involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and will speak at the annual NAMI Symposium on Oct. 11 in St. Louis. She has also been featured on such television stations as KSDK and the Nine Network.

Photos: Theresa San Luis, SIUE graduate student.

Theresa San Luis (R) and her mentor Lora Miles, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs at SIUE.

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