This past Tuesday, acclaimed author, public speaker and former Chicago Bulls cheerleader Erika J. Kendrick presented “Who Moved My Happy?” in the Colvard Student Union’s Foster Ballroom in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Month.
According to Kendrick, the goal of her talk was to save lives by normalizing mental health and by featuring topics such as suicide prevention and ending the stigma surrounding mental illness, with a focus on informed, inspired and life-affirming strategies.
When Kendrick was 18, she was diagnosed with severe acute depression. A few years after her graduation from Stanford University, Kendrick was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis and panic attack disorder, she said.
Kendrick said it took her a long time to speak out about her experiences with mental illness due to the pervasive stigma persisting around mental health issues today. Kendrick is now touring the country, presenting “Who Moved My Happy?” to provide a blueprint to assist attendees with living a happy, healthy and empowered life.
“On the life-changing tour, I share my story of mental fitness and suicide survival,” Kendrick said. “Through transparency, I empower those challenged with mental health issues, while educating those loving and living with someone who is.”
Kendrick’s talk was primarily sponsored by Mississippi State University’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness, but the event was co-sponsored by several other on-campus organizations, including Student Counseling Services, National Panhellenic Counsel, the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, the Department of Athletics, Housing and Residence Life, the Department of Psychology and the Department of Sociology.
The Department of Health Promotion and Wellness’s Outreach Coordinator Kim Kavalsky said she believes, as a woman of color, Kendrick has a unique voice regarding mental health.
“I thought her perspective as a woman of color openly speaking about her experience with mental illness was important in creating a conversation and reducing stigma,” Kavalsky said. “Unfortunately, we don’t hear enough voices of people of color when we talk about mental health issues. Representation matters.”
In her lecture, Kendrick discussed her survival of a suicide attempt and other challenges she has faced.
Kavalsky believes her lecture is important because there is power in a personal story, and perhaps hearing Kendrick will inspire others to seek help if needed.
“I hope those struggling with mental health issues recognize that they are not alone and help is out there,” Kavalsky said. “For other students, this presentation can provide them with a greater understanding of mental illness so that they can be more compassionate and empathetic to others.”
The lecture began with introductions from Kavalsky and Regina Hyatt, vice president of Student Affairs. Hyatt shared her experience with mental health, inviting the audience to wonder why they were present Tuesday night, as she detailed a familiar story—how overwhelming college life can be.
Hyatt briefly described the on-campus resources for mental health, including individual therapy, group therapy, workshops and walk-in sessions at Student Counseling Services. Students are encouraged to take advantage of these resources, especially because they are already paying for them, she said.
“I’m not going to say they’re free, because you paid for them in your tuition,” Hyatt said, “but they’re available at no additional charge.”
When Kendrick took the stage, she began with a warning to easy criers—tears would be shed. She also lightheartedly joked about catching any falling eyelashes, because they took twenty minutes to apply.
Kendrick then took a temperature-check of the room, asking for anyone who has ever experienced an issue in their mental health to raise their hand; this included anything from a break-up to a failed test to a more serious event. All the raised hands meant no one was alone, she said.
“I remember being in a room—a room not nearly as nice as this one with small, gray walls,” Kendrick said. “I was being placed on suicide watch. I dreamed about driving my red Toyota Corolla over the side of a cliff, and one day, I tried it.”
Following her suicide attempt, Kendrick was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and placed on suicide watch. She was 19 years old.
Kendrick said she was an over-achiever throughout her academic career, always aiming for a straight A's, if not an A+. When her doctor asked her if she had a suicide plan, Kendrick replied she had two.
“On paper, and even in real life, I was a successful kid. But behind closed doors, I was empty and hopeless,” Kendrick said.
When a counselor asked Kendrick to remember things that made her happy, Kendrick immediately thought of dancing. Instead of following her counselor’s advice—to take a dance class at the local YMCA—Kendrick set out to become an NBA cheerleader.
Even after the onset of her successful career as a cheerleader, Kendrick was still battling with the voices in her head. She recounted the story of a time the voices in her head, once only out to hurt herself, told her to run over a group of fellow cheerleaders.
Kendrick walked the audience through her mental fitness plan, “The Incredible 10,” following a question-and-answer session. Attendees had the opportunity to analyze their own lives and find ways to implement better mental health practices within them.
Kameron Jade Talley, a graduate assistant for the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness, said Kendrick's courage in sharing her story is very appreciated.
"She was a voice of hope to so many students last night who came to hear her speak. Erika was able to speak on the issue of suicide as person who is a survivor of it, and that holds power. She was able to share her story, give students resources to take home with them and answer questions about her life and mental illness. We are so grateful for Erika, and we appreciate her bravery to come share her story with us here at Mississippi State," Talley said.