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Survivor strives to encourage mental health conversations

Mariellee Aurelio seeks to encourage more conversations regarding mental health in hopes to gain the University 's administrations' and students' attention. |The Cougar/Pablo Milanese

Mariellee Aurelio seeks to encourage more conversations regarding mental health in hopes to gain the attention of the University’s administration and students. | Pablo Milanese/The Cougar

She sat on the kitchen tile floor trembling after realizing it was the second time she has attempted to take her life.

She has struggled with anxiety since she was 8-years-old, yet at 20, she has attempted suicide twice in one year.

“I never knew why I felt that way I felt,” human nutrition and foods junior Mariellee Aurelio said. “I had a home. I’m on scholarships so I don’t have to worry about money. I have a job, I’ve always had a loving family and loving sisters, but somehow I was still suicidal.”

But with a smile on her face, stress in her eyes from her biochemistry courses and the constant concern for others, anyone could have mistaken her for the average college student — even though Aurelio counted as the one in four college students facing suicidal thoughts or feelings.

Aurelio grew up in a family with sisters and two affectionate parents. Early in her childhood, her family immigrated from the Philippines in pursuit of the American dream. Because of the language barrier and the unfamiliar environment, Aurelio’s family found comfort and serenity in each other, but she never opened up to them about what she was going through until she found herself helpless and at an all-time low.

“I knew it was going to be costly on my family,” Aurelio said. “I was embarrassed to tell my family (of) this secret because I had always portrayed myself as someone who is happy. I didn’t want them to be embarrassed of me when I was embarrassed of having these thoughts I couldn’t control.”

As she grew older, her thoughts progressively got worse, but she kept a joyful mask on until she finally opened up to her boyfriend, Dat Nguyen, in 2014.

“I tried to stop it, and I think that’s part of the reason why it took me so long to get help,” Aurelio said. “I thought I could fix it on my own. When I finally told my boyfriend about it, that’s when we started finding plans for treatment and help.”

University of Texas at Austin junior Dat Nguyen stood by her side as a friend prior to their relationship, which began a year and a half ago, helping when he could. Even so, he found great difficulty in understanding what Aurelio went through.

“I was shocked, considering how strong of a person she is, and I thought she would be the last person I would hear (to) have suicidal thoughts from,” Nguyen said.

When things started going south in November 2014, Counseling and Psychological Services came to mind. She finally sought help after the second attempt to take her life. She found comfort with CAPS psychologist Joshua Knox in February 2015.

Afraid to embarrass or burden her parents with her condition, Aurelio told her sister, Marianne Tang, two nights before she had her session with Knox. Tang found it difficult to comprehend what her sister was going through.

“It was even more difficult to accept what I had missed, being the sister she shared a room with growing up and being a nurse,” Tang said. “All of these (things) didn’t matter by the time we found out she tried to kill herself. I thought about what was more important: to stand by her and to stay with her, to not ask questions but to wait until she was ready to talk, to not blame her, myself or the people around us for what has happened, but to see what we can do together.”

Knox was able to help Aurelio take the next step forward in recovery. He has been a licensed psychologist for seven years, three of those years at UH, and believes depression and suicidal thoughts are treatable conditions with the right assistance and willingness of the patient.

Asking someone directly about suicide and being willing to assist them in getting the help they need can be the difference between life and death, Knox said.

Aurelio debated for months on whether or not she should receive treatment for something she thought she could handle. But her session with Knox gave her a different perspective — that her situation should not be handled lightly.

“Dr. Knox told me this one thing that convinced me the most. ‘There’s a chance that you’re going to leave this room, go home and you’re not going to do anything to harm yourself, but there is that chance that you will. If you do, then it’s final’,” Aurelio said.

When Aurelio agreed to receive treatment, her family was notified that she was on her way to Ben Taub Hospital. Aurelio was handcuffed and escorted by police to the hospital.

“At the time, I didn’t understand,” Aurelio said. “I knew I was harmful to myself but I never thought I was harmful to anyone (else). But they don’t know if you’re experiencing psychosis, so it is for your own safety. I knew I needed help, I mean that’s why I was at CAPS, but I really needed that push.”

She spent two days at Ben Taub before she was admitted to the Behavioral Hospital of Bellaire for rehabilitation. She spent 10 days there on a pre-made schedule of group discussions and collaborations on topics including character development, life skills and health, yoga, therapy, movie nights, game nights, poetry writing and journaling assignments.

After being released and spending a year in recovery while taking medication, Aurelio decided to apply as a guest speaker for the Project Semicolon event in February. She was the first to reach out and sign up as a survivor speaker, said Melanee Wood, assistant director of fitness at campus recreation.

“We had several survivor speakers at the event, but Mariellee is uniquely passionate about turning her personal struggle into a positive force for change,” Wood said. “She deeply understands that if we don’t talk about mental illness, nothing will change.”

Wood, whose uncle died by suicide eight years ago, commended Aurelio’s ability to share her story. Despite her nervousness, Aurelio’s eagerness to help her fellow Cougars prevailed, Wood said.

“From what I’ve seen, it seems that Mariellee has strengthened her sense of purpose through participating,” Wood said. “The timing of the event was so serendipitous to her personal story. I think that helped the gears click into place for Mariellee; it helped her push through the fears she had about speaking and saw it as an opportunity to serve a greater good.”

Concluding her speech, Aurelio met American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Southeast Texas Chapter education chair Brenda Fitch, who not only nominated her as a UH Ambassador for the chapter but also introduced her at the Out of the Darkness walk in late April.

Aurelio was the only speaker who was a suicide survivor.

“(Mariellee is) determined to live, to do her part in saving her own life and to support others that may be struggling,” Fitch said. “(She) is a true hero in every sense of the word.”

After all the difficulty Aurelio had describing her experience to therapists, her psychiatrist, her family, her friends and in her journals, she finally felt comfortable telling her story to the 300-person crowd at the Out of the Darkness walk.

Although she received several words of appreciation for her speech at the event, she continues to work toward having University administration realize the need in supplying more psychiatrists.

“This is why I do this, not for the praise, but for the understanding,” Aurelio said. “This is my endeavor, to get people to understand the severity of what I went through and to join me in keeping the conversation going about mental health.”

Aurelio declined to disclosed the ways she attempted suicide, hoping not to influence others dealing with mental illnesses by suggesting avenues by which they can take their lives.

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