Valeria Hernandez, 22, speaking about mental health at TEDxUF on March 24.

Valeria Hernandez sank into her bath on Dec. 2, 2015. She’d considered killing herself for months and decided this was the night. During her attempt, she had a realization.

She did not want to die.

“Even though my brain was convincing me I wanted to die, my body was fighting tooth and nail to stay alive,” Hernandez said in an email.

A week in the hospital following her attempt bridged two periods of her life: one of despair and one of progress.

“After I got hospitalized, I felt like I was in a different world,” she said. “Whatever diagnoses the psychiatrist would write up on my record, that wasn't a sentence condemning me to failure or a life of unhappiness.”

Hernandez, a 22-year-old UF psychology and family, youth and community sciences senior, said she hopes her story develops a discussion of mental health and suicide prevention.

“You can’t save the people you can’t reach,” Hernandez said.

In an effort to reach more students, the Counseling & Wellness Center at UF approved hiring 12 faculty members over the next four years. According to its website, the center saw 5,008 clients in 2017.

Rosa West, the suicide prevention coordinator at the CWC, said the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have shifted national dialogue toward mental health.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students, West said. Warning signs may include severe, lasting mood changes, disinterest in normal activities and slipping grades.

The CWC provides a 24/7 suicide hotline for emergencies, counseling and suicide prevention techniques to assist distressed students.

“One of the things we communicate to students is that while there may be a wait for counseling, there is never a wait for a crisis or an emergency,” West said.

Hernandez hopes to work with students struggling with mental health.  She helped coordinate UF’s mental health taskforce and has been involved in the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program.

“Once a university admits a student, it’s (the university’s) responsibility to do everything in (its) power to keep them there and help them graduate,” Hernandez said.

Before counseling, Hernandez thought it was “overrated,” which she identified as a prevalent stigma. She stressed the importance of being present for friends who may have mental health issues.

“I want to reach as many people as I possibly can, and maybe those people will reach even more people …” she said. “So they have that thought one second before it's too late, so they can find that bit of strength to say ‘We are not dying here tonight, either.’”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7. The organization also offers a 24/7 chat with a counselor at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. The CWC offers 24/7 emergency services at 352-392-1575.

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