Women’s Week Celebration: Mental health authority speaks to sorority women about disorders

By Laura Smith

November 17, 2008

When Colleen Coffey came to speak to Elon’s sorority women on Tuesday, Nov. 11, she didn’t talk about philanthropy events or how not to commit recruitment infractions. 

To celebrate Women’s Week, Coffey, program manager for the National Mental Health Campaign, shared her story with the women of Elon’s Panhellenic community to raise awareness about the presence and dangers of different mental health disorders.

“I’m going to tell you my story in hopes that perhaps it will give you some insight on talking about feelings, talking about emotions and the fact that these issues are totally real and totally relevant, but they are treatable,” Coffey said. 

After feeling conflicted all throughout middle school, Coffey couldn’t take it anymore. With $80 in her pocket, she took her parents’ car and ran away to St. Louis. It was after this incident that she was sent to an all-girls boarding school for high school and later to a mental institution. 

“I was very angry and mad at the world,” Coffey said. 

But Coffey did not just resort to running away to escape her problems.

“I tried to work very hard at being thin,” she said. “I was so malnourished that my heart could have stopped, but I didn’t care and I kept going.”

At one point during her time in graduate school, she missed the birth of her friend’s baby so she could go to the gym in hopes of losing more weight.

But Coffey was able to overcome it all. While earning a bachelor’s degree at Belmont University, a master’s in college student affairs at Eastern Illinois University, being involved in a Greek organization and dealing with relapses and her parents’ divorce, Coffey came out of it all with a different outlook on life.

She credits much of this to the sisters of her sorority, Alpha Sigma Tau.
“I was able to graduate from college and I completely attribute that to the people in my life who supported me,” she said. “No matter how sad I was or how anxious I was, I was able to feel like I belonged. I think that’s something really, really cool about sororities and fraternities, that in spite, or sometimes because of, your challenges, you make each other better women [and men].”

Coffey explained that there are many different factors that can trigger these disorders.

“Mental disorders can be biologically based,” Coffey said, explaining that her own mother suffers from similar disorders. “Also environment, neglect, abuse, things of that nature can trigger a mental disorder.”
While she is still not completely recovered, Coffey maintains a positive attitude.

“I’m not cured,” she said. “I wish I could tell you that I was cured, but I’m not. But I’m better today than I was yesterday.”

Coffey stressed the importance of seeking help for mental health disorders for not only one’s personal benefit, but also for the benefit of loved ones.

“When we are talking about mental health issues, mental disorders and the level of harm that it causes to you,” she said. “We cannot forget the exponential level of harm that these things can have on the people in your lives, on the people who love and care about you and think that you are important.”

About Colleen Coffey: 

Colleen was on the road to having every success in life until she was hospitalized in 9th grade. She struggled with eating disorders, anxiety and depression during her high school and college years before finding balance in her life. 

She now works as a program manager for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign. Coffey is an entertainer and inspirational speaker. 

She has been active in sorority life since she was an undergraduate and is the author of the book: “I Heart Recruitment: The Eight Steps to Limitless Possibilities for Sororities.”


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