After two local alumni committed suicide, the Dallas Chapter came together to start a conversation about mental health.
In fall 2012, the Texas Exes Dallas Chapter’s Legacy Group—a branch of the chapter aimed at older alumni—learned that one of their members had committed suicide.
“It just came as a shock,” remembers John Donovan, BBA ’84, Life Member, a Legacy Group co-founder. “This was someone we knew well, and we felt terrible about it.”
Donovan and two fellow Legacy Group leaders—Leo Sierra, BBA ’82, Life Member, and David Rodriguez, BAr ’75—were deeply affected by the news. “We just wished there was something we could have done,” Donovan says. After a chapter meeting, the men ended up off in a corner, talking about the tragedy. As they opened up, they discovered that all three of them had struggled to help a mentally ill family member.
They wondered if the topic would resonate with other alumni. “We had just done an event on social media,” Donovan explains, “and I started to think, why not this, too? It wasn’t a typical area for us, but mental health affects everyone.” So the Legacy Group began planning a Mental Health Awareness Symposium.
Then, fewer than 90 days after the first suicide, there was another: a prominent Dallas alumna took her life. “We couldn’t believe it,” Donovan said. “It was the ultimate message that yes, we really need to do this event.”
Dallas-area alumni agreed. About 50 of them turned out in April for the symposium in an unassuming office building, a space donated by Sierra. They learned how to spot warning signs for depression and suicide, as well as other common mental health challenges: anxiety, bipolar disorder, and dementia, to name a few.
Donovan and his team asked UT’s School of Social Work for help, and development director Laura Wells, BS ’02, MPAff ’13, Life Member, recruited UT mental health expert Cynthia Franklin to lend her expertise. Longhorn connections helped secure two more expert speakers: Connie Wilson, director of psychological and social services for Dallas public schools, and Missy Wall, director of Teen CONTACT, a youth crisis hotline. Hollyn Donovan, 18, an award-winning mental health advocate who happens to be John Donovan’s daughter, also spoke about her volunteer work and her experience overcoming an eating disorder and depression while living with Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder on the autism spectrum.
The response to the evening was so strong that the Legacy Group is now planning a health awareness series on topics ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.
Featured speaker Franklin says she was impressed by the event. “To me, it’s evidence that the Texas Exes are willing to take on serious issues,” she says. “It shows they care for their community.”
Photo courtesy Thinkstock.
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