One Alumna's Inspiring Fight for Mental Health

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By Gabriela Leskur '16
Alumni Association Writing Intern


What’s in a name? In the case of the Hersh Foundation, the name represents Julie Kosnik Hersh ’82 and her husband Ken, whose hearts have propelled the foundation’s efforts into worthwhile causes, undeniably making a difference in the lives of others. 

As President of the Hersh Foundation, which she started with her husband in 1997, Hersh works to promote better mental health through innovative strategies such as education and the arts. Her passion for helping others has led her to become involved with different organizations and causes that work to improve the lives of those struggling with mental illness.  

In following with the mission of the Hersh Foundation, she sits on the advisory committee for University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Depression Center. The center’s mission is to facilitate a superior move between mood disorder research to actual treatment in the greater Dallas area.

“Under the direction of Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, the UTSW Depression Center will integrate with existing health care and social service organizations to study large population groups to develop and refine better treatments for mood disorders,” Hersh said. Dr. Trivedi has just been selected as one of the Reuter's 2014 Most Influential Scientific Minds in the World for psychiatry. 

One particularly essential part of the Center is its dedication to holistic treatment, focusing on preventative measures that any individual can take to fight off mental illness, such as sleep, exercise, diet, nutrition, and mindfulness. This is something Hersh endorses whole-heartedly. 

“Through financial support of the Hersh Foundation and other donors, my hope is UTSW can provide evidence for a more scientific approach to treatment for mood disorders,” she said.
 
Another program near to Hersh’s heart is CONTACT, a 24-hour support line for those in crisis. Unlike a suicide hotline, CONTACT embraces an open and proactive method by reaching out to treat the source of the caller’s problem before it becomes too severe.

“CONTACT’s approach is to provide ready support for those in crisis, hopefully long before suicide is even an option,” Hersh said. “Although CONTACT does deter suicide by providing a safe place for those to call when they are having suicidal thoughts, their approach is to encourage people to address problems when they’re more manageable.”

Through Hersh’s support and involvement with the organization, CONTACT recently announced it will be presenting Hersh with the “Spirit of Contact” award this year.
 
Not too long ago, Hersh found herself in a situation that might have kept her from contributing to all these causes. Since her college years, Hersh has dealt with two debilitating major depressive episodes. At one point, her depression was so severe that she considered taking her own life.

“My perception was so distorted. I truly believed that my husband and kids would be better off without me,” said Hersh.

However, with luck and perhaps divine will, Hersh found effective treatment and was given a new shot at life.

“I recovered so quickly with medical intervention that it was obvious to me: the root of my depression had been truly physical, just like any other medical condition,” said Hersh. “With that knowledge, I started to do everything I could to prevent my illness from coming back and to find a way to give others with mental illness some ray of hope and understanding.”

Since then, Hersh has taken her harrowing experience with depression as an impetus for social engagement not only within her community in Texas, but also at Notre Dame, around the country, and abroad.

At the University, Hersh works with students to heighten mental wellness awareness and spread the message of hope. In 2013, she served as the keynote speaker for Irish State of Mind Week: an inspirational cross campus effort to provide mental health support, awareness, healing, and wellness to the students at Notre Dame. She’s also been an integral part of the curriculum for the Center for Social Concerns Seminar In Their Shoes, as well as a highlighted speaker in the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars program.

“I’ve explained my own depressive break as a freshman at Notre Dame and what I might have done differently to better manage my own mental health,” Hersh said of her presentations to Notre Dame students. “All of these talks have resulted in an active question and answer session where we exchange ideas about the creative ways to manage depression.”

On an even more personal level, Hersh decided to publish the intimate and difficult details of her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts in a book, Struck by Living.

“From the worst time of my life came some of the best parts of my life now,” she said. “Publishing a book about my experience with depression not only helped me come to terms with my struggles, but allowed me to help others.”

Hersh has received emails and letters from individuals across the country, sharing their stories and thanking her for sharing hers. With a new edition of her work soon to be published in Spanish entitled Decidí Vivir, Hersh hopes that the Latino community might find inspiration in her story as well. 

“Taking care of my health, monitoring my illness—that’s for me. The rest—it’s for everyone else. I hope that the stories I share, the work I do, will help people on the edge,” said Hersh. “Knowing that my work might help just one person choose to live another day makes all of it worth it.”