During her senior year of high school, Reid Depowski took her first college-level psychology class. She fell in love with the subject. This same year she lost her mother to suicide.
“This was a really pivotal moment in my life, in realizing such an important moment of mental health, despair and seeing the opportunities my mother didn’t have for her mental health,” Depowski, who is now an LSA senior, said. “And so, this was kind of a snowball effect — I was already getting so interested in psychology and mental health.”
After this, Depowski became involved with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention as a volunteer. Her developing passion for psychology continued when she enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she joined Active Minds and CAPS in Action — both organizations that promote mental health awareness.
As part of the national organization, Depowski helps plan expert panels for Active Minds. For instance, she’s brought experts to campus to discuss eating disorders. The aim here, she explains, is to break down myths and provide real answers about mental health.
CAPS in Action is a student group partnered with the University of Michigan’s Counseling And Psychological Services that spreads the word of the psychological work on campus. One such project she is working on is a video featuring the stories of campus leaders who have struggled with mental health in an effort to destigmatize depression or mental illness.
It was with AFSP, however, that Depowski found personal connections with those who faced similar struggles.
“I have met people who have scary similarities to my story,” she said. “People who have been through the exact same thing I have, down to the details. It can feel very isolating to have gone through this loss that some people gasp at. So when you meet another individual who has gone through the same thing you have, it is, like, a burden lifted off of you. Like, someone gets it. Someone knows. … The connection you make with other suicide loss survivors, it’s priceless.”
One of AFSP’s largest events is the Out of the Darkness Walk, an event promoting suicide prevention. After helping to plan her home county’s walk, Depowski realized she could bring the first Out of the Darkness Walk to the University — which came to Ann Arbor on April 9.
“I was like, ‘This is possible. I know I could make this happen,’ ” she said.
It was a quick turnover — planning with the Michigan chair of AFSP in early December, Depowski went through the heavy paperwork process to secure a walk in Nichols Arboretum.
Four hundred walkers participated in the event, which raised $28,000 — half of which will fund the University’s mental health resources. Depowski’s committee decides where those funds will be allocated.
Depowski explained that sometimes it could be hard, intimidating even, to tackle mental health since it was so encompassing on campus and required everyone — students, professors and administration alike — to be on board.
“Sadness, in American culture, is seen as a weakness. ‘You’re not sad, you’re not special’ sort of thing,” she said. “Specifically in suicide culture, something I am so passionate about, is that suicide is not really a choice for people. It’s not something they do to burden others. It’s not something people do out of revenge, it’s not something people do for attention.”
Depowski also found comfort outside of the academic and activist realm. Despite being disconnected from her father after her mother’s passing, she has found a home with her aunt.
“She has become my closest family member besides my sister,” she said. “Our connection has blossomed since the loss of my mom. … My mom’s family is very small, so having my aunt, my sister and, of course, my grandparents in conjunction to an entire family who has loved me and accepted me as their own has been very healing to me and has helped work me through a lot of this grief I experienced.”
As for the future, Depowski has been accepted to the University’s School of Social Work, where she hopes to become a licensed clinical social worker. While she plans to stay involved with her organization, Depowski views this next part of her life as the biggest step to her goals.
“It feels like I am finally entering the stage in my life where I am going to make these changes happen for other people,” she said. “I have benefitted so much from talk-therapy that I want to bring that to other people.”
Ultimately, Depowski believes she owes much of her drive to her mother.
“My mother really encouraged me in school,” she said. “I owe so much of who I am today to her. She was not a mental health advocate, but she gave me a lot of her spirit and fight to make these things happen — to find the motivation to do this type of work.”
See the 7 other students of the year here.