When Dr. Sherilyn Garner was only 15 years old, she attempted suicide and was diagnosed with depression. Despite this diagnosis, she couldn’t get the treatment she needed in part because there were no counselors near her home in Magnolia, Alabama. For more than a decade she buried her feelings and ignored her diagnosis. Finally, in 2016, she decided to take control of her depression and her life through therapy, yoga, meditation, and medication. Two years later she founded A Friend of Mind, an organization dedicated to promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention for adolescents and their families. With chapters in Birmingham, Alabama’s Black Belt region; Atlanta, Georgia; and Reno, Nevada, A Friend of Mind has offered yoga and meditation classes to more than 400 adolescents and suicide prevention training to more than 400 community members. Sherilyn, a mother of three who splits her time between Birmingham and Reno, wants adolescents everywhere — but especially those in underserved communities — to know that their mental health matters. We’re honored to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Dr. Sherilyn Garner.
Tell us more about the suicide prevention training offered by A Friend of Mind.
The training is called QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer – and it is a suicide prevention gatekeeper training. So, what that means is a nationally certified QPR instructor instructs people on how to identify the signs of a suicide crisis. The instructor teaches people how to ask the question if someone is thinking about harming themselves. If the answer is yes, the instructor then persuades them to be open about their feelings as well as seek care, and lastly, the instructor will refer them to local, state, or federal resources pertaining to suicide prevention.
What are you doing to bring mental health awareness and education to rural communities and other areas that are often underserved?
I grew up in the Black Belt region in Alabama, so recently I started A Friend of Mind chapter in the Black Belt region that’s led by community leaders. And what we do there is the same thing we do in other cities. We offer yoga and meditation classes to adolescents. We do offer QPR training to adolescents, teachers, and community members, and we also work with the youth detention center there.
With adolescents who are referred to us, we schedule weekly virtual meetings to do goal planning, and we give them the tools that they need to achieve these goals. Earlier this year we distributed 1,200 mental health care kits to schools in the Black Belt region. Each kit contained a journal, coloring book, crayons if they were in K through 4, colored pencils if they were older, a stress ball, and a small teddy bear.
What would you say to adults who believe children and adolescents are too young to suffer from depression?
Children are just like adults. They have feelings and emotions. They experience things just like we do, and most of the time they experience more things than we do on a daily basis because of school — bullying, social isolation. Household dynamics play into how they may be feeling, too. All of these things impact children, and when a child does not have positive coping mechanisms or access to any type of treatment to help them think through and talk through their feelings, they harbor all of those emotions until they can’t anymore, and they just blow up. A lot of our childhood experiences carry over into our adulthood. If we can start giving children coping tools, then we can improve relationships with our kids and we can help our kids improve their relationships with their peers. We can help mold our kids into people who positively contribute to society. We can mold our children into people who are not afraid to say how they are feeling.
Is there anything else about adolescent mental health that you wish more people understood?
Many parents stray away from mental health and suicide prevention conversations because they believe they can’t have these conversations with a kid. They don’t know how to start these conversations with a kid. Many times, a good way to start this conversation is asking your child “How are you feeling today?” and being open to hearing that child’s feelings with no judgment. These are difficult conversations to have. I completely understand that, but that’s not saying the conversations shouldn’t be had and that the conversations can’t be had.
How do you fight through the stigma associated with mental illness when trying to encourage adolescents and their families to prioritize mental health?
I share my story. I still deal with depression. I still live with anxiety. But I let them know I made it through my childhood and here I am as an adult, and I’m treating my mental illnesses and that contributes to my overall well-being.
Many times, some parents don’t take their kids to see therapists because they’re not aware of the free programs that are available. So being able to link those parents and adolescents to resources in the community helps with stigma. Wherever we go it is extremely important that we work with the community leaders there because the community leaders know their community members better than we do. We rely on them to get that buy-in.
What happened in 2016 that motivated you to seek help to treat your depression?
I was in a new relationship, and it was the start of my Ph.D. program and I got to see how my untreated depression and stress were affecting me in my relationship and in school. I was extremely stressed before the school year even started, and that relationship wasn’t a healthy relationship. It was about taking a step back and seeing this is not who I want to be for the rest of my life. I need some help.
I had started doing yoga in 2013 or 2014 but in 2016, I started seeing a therapist. I was able to unpack a ton of stuff that I thought I was over or that I thought I had come to terms with. Being able to share my raw emotions with someone who was not judgmental helped me recover from a lot of traumatic childhood experiences.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I recently took up paddle boarding as a hobby, and I enjoy hiking and traveling. And I cannot live without self-care. Everyone in our house knows I must have self-care. I have to take myself out and treat myself.
What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?
I like going shopping, getting a massage, a mani/pedi, or taking a nap, and spending time alone away from my family and everything else. Some parents feel guilty about that, but not me!
What’s the best advice you can give?
Don’t be afraid to say no. Too many times we try to take on much more than we can handle, and when we do that we become overwhelmed. We become stressed and when we are not treated for our persistent depression or stress then that takes a toll on our life. It’s okay to say no, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation of why you’re saying no.
Other than self-care, what are three things you can’t live without?
Music, tacos, and margaritas.
Thank you, Sherilyn! All photography by Alley Rose Co.
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