This past weekend marked an important anniversary for Haley DeGreve and hundreds of Quad Cities students.
Feb. 5, 2019 was the first meeting of The Gray Matters Collective at Augustana College, co-founded and led by DeGreve (a 2020 Augustana graduate). It’s a mental health organization with a simple message – “you matter,” and its supporters hope the group spreads nationwide.
“A collective of people who’ve endured pain. People who know what it’s like to battle mental health problems,” DeGreve – who works as a communications specialist at John Deere – posted about the GMC anniversary on social media. “People who’ve survived trauma and suicidal thoughts. We fight for those we’ve lost to suicide because they matter too.”
Now the GMC has formal chapters in three Quad Cities high schools – Moline, Orion and Rockridge, and there’s interest at others. With continued high rates of suicide, attempted suicide, and mental health pressures due to the pandemic, the need is greater than ever.
The first event at Gerber Center’s Gavle Room was during a big ice storm, and DeGreve was worried people wouldn’t attend. “It was just this flood of students and I remember having tears in my eyes, because people were standing out the door,” she recalled, noting over 250 students were there. “It just spoke volumes.”
GMC had posted stark black and white posters up around campus the night before. The Gray Matters name wasn’t even on the posters.
“It created this ripple effect and everyone showed up for the meeting that night – it was amazing,” DeGreve said. “I was blown away by the need and the interest of people my age wanting to talk about mental health.”
Gray Matters refers to your brain, and loss of gray matter indicates a mental health issue, she said. “One thing is recognizing that mental health problems are real, 100%. The second one is the ‘You Matter’ slogan…When we say you matter, what we really mean is, your life matters and you matter as an individual. We want you here; we need you here.”
The third piece is — DeGreve has found mental health is often thought of as black and white issue, but there are shades of gray that matter. Everyday people need to learn about mental health; be there for others, listen and be empathetic. “That’s where the real change is gonna be in my eyes,” she said.
This school year, DeGreve’s goal was to focus on Augustana, but Orion High students approached her this past summer. They didn’t have a high school program, but DeGreve helped them come up with one.
“They were students who broke the barrier. Once they did it at their school, other schools started to approach me,” she said, noting Moline and Rockridge have formed chapters, and Geneseo, AlWood, and St. Ambrose students are interested.
“It shows that what we’re doing is making an impact,” DeGreve said.
“The more that you’re talking about it, the more you’re normalizing it, you make it OK for those who are struggling to open up,” she said. “The more you suppress it, the worse it gets.”
Open discussion of mental health challenges doesn’t raise risk of suicide attempts, DeGreve said.
“The research doesn’t show that,” she said. “The more we talk about suicide, it’s not gonna put it in other people’s heads. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, we actually open up that pathway to talk about it, and not feel like there’s something wrong with you – to understand it’s OK to struggle and you don’t have to do it alone.”
“Every single student who is involved, they are so passionate and so willing just to take it to new heights,” DeGreve said. “I’ve been blown away – it makes me have so much faith in the generation coming after me. I think we’re in such good hands as young leaders. They’re all such incredible young people.”
High school chapters are dealing with different issues than college students.
“High school, there’s different expectations; you’re thinking about your future in college – where you want to go, what you want to be,” DeGreve (an Alleman High alum) said. “You also have this extra factor of societal, social media expectations as well, that I think really weigh on high school students.”
“Especially through COVID, it’s taken away a lot of the fun stuff in school – the dances, sporting events,” she said. “I think high schoolers now are struggling with a lot more stuff than I had to deal with.”
The last few months of her college experience were remote, and DeGreve (who’s now 23) struggled with that isolation, as so many students did.
“High school, it’s tough, because you want to see your friends – especially for people who might not have the most supportive home life,” she said. “When you get off from that, it makes things so much harder to deal with.”
High school chapters have been meeting in person, and talking about what mental health means to them, working through issues together. They also do a lot of education and promotion through social media.
Q-C school perspectives:
- Orion High School
Madi Greenwood from the Orion High chapter said Sunday that after meeting outside of school, they got approval from the administration to have meetings in the school, and the first one was Feb. 2.
“Mental health has always been incredibly important to me. I have dealt with my own struggles as well as watched people who were close to me endure similar issues,” she said. “Mental health and illness are so often treated like topics that should be hidden and forgotten about. The biggest thing we can do to fix this is simply to talk about it. In reality, the more and more we talk about it, the more likely we are to actually create change. If we spend time teaching people how to deal with their negative emotions rather than shove them aside, lives can be saved and the stigma will break down in time.
“The need to talk about mental health has only increased as the world tries to heal after the last two years of the pandemic,” Greenwood said. “So many people, myself included, have suffered as a result of the pandemic.”
“There are so many things that we hope we can accomplish through our GMC,” she said of Gray Matters. “For many who have struggled with mental health, having community and someone to talk to can be revolutionary. Simply having someone you can turn to when dealing with an issue can literally be lifesaving.
“It is so easy to separate our school into groups: athletes, music kids, theatre kids, agriculture students, etc. Our chapter aims to create one group, one community,” Greenwood said. “Mental health affects every single person in our school in a different way, and we want everyone to understand that is okay.”
Orion senior Isabelle Nordstrom first connected with DeGreve to start a GMC chapter.
“Though it has been a struggle getting a chapter started in Orion, the impact we are going to make will be worth it,” she said. “During the pandemic, my anxiety and depression became worse than ever. Though it took me a while, I have ended up getting the help I need and am doing better than ever.
“I hope that our GMC chapter will help others be brave enough to get help. Had I reached out to those around me sooner, I could have been saved a lot of pain,” Nordstrom said. “Through my experiences, I hope that I can help others too. I do know people who have attempted suicide.”
She’s gone to a therapist and is taking anxiety medication.
“There is a huge stigma around taking medication, but I am proud of myself for getting help and try to encourage others to not be afraid to do the same,” she said.
- Moline High School
Vivian Veto, a Moline senior, is president of her school’s GMC chapter. There are around 50 students but it’s always increasing.
They meet once a week and have been making posters, selling T-shirts and talking about ways they can each be advocates in the school and community, she said Sunday. Five of them also spoke to the Rotary Club to talk to them about what GMC does.
“I am involved because I myself, struggle with mental health issues and know that I can do something to help others,” Veto said. “This topic isn’t talked about enough and it’s a leading killer in the U.S.
“My mental health worsened during the pandemic, as I was always alone I began to feel depressed and anxious,” she said. “I hope The Gray Matters will allow people to talk about their mental health issues and help others who suffer in silence. A lot of my friends and family have attempted suicide, but luckily none of them have died by it.
“I am so grateful that they are still with me and will do anything to continually support them and others who go through the same struggles every day,” she said.
- Rockridge High School
Amelia Rursch, a junior at Rockridge in Taylor Ridge, Ill., also was inspired by DeGreve after meeting her last summer. The school’s first meeting Jan. 12 drew 38 students and now they have 57 members.
Some activities include compliment note passing, positivity mirrors in the school bathrooms, discussion groups, mindful coloring, and more. Rursch said she knows someone who attempted suicide at 15 and someone who died by suicide at 17.
“Mental health awareness was important to me before I even knew it. While growing up I didn’t know my grandfather was bipolar or that my grandma suffered from depression,” she said. “When my eyes started to open, I realized how many people around me were suffering with mental health issues or could use some motivation getting through ‘the suck,’ including me.
“I want my generation to have the resources and reduced stigma that my grandparents’ did not,” Rursch said. “When COVID hit in the spring of my freshman year, my stress and anxiety soared. Online school was easy for me, but that didn’t mean it was a positive experience for my mental health. I missed social interaction with my peers and positive affirmations I was used to hearing from my teachers.”
“We have huge hopes and dreams to minimize the stigma and promote awareness around mental health in our district,” she said. “We look forward to hosting guest speakers, therapy dogs, or mental health training sessions.
“Our chapter wants to hold community events, partake in mindful activities like yoga/meditation, and most of all be there for each other,” Rursch said. “While pursuing these dreams, we always remember it is all to make a difference to that one. If we can help one person out of a dark place, put a smile on their face, or relieve the tiniest bit of stress, it’s all worth it.”
- Augustana College
Brie Kunstman is a junior at Augustana, where they are working to rebuild the GMC chapter and usually have at least 10 members who attend meetings.
“I am a part of The Gray Matters Collective because I want to help people to engage in conversations about mental health in a safe space,” she said Sunday. “Personally, I have mental health issues and feel that The Gray Matters is helping people to connect and discuss these topics in a way that is relatable and inspiring.
“I want to be a part of erasing the stigma surrounding mental health, and I feel that doing this means helping to educate others,” she said, noting she’s known two students (who were not local) who took their own lives when they were 20 years old.
“It is crucial that we discuss mental health because it is something that impacts everyone in a different way,” Kuntsman said. “By educating one another and having open conversations about it, we can help to erase stigma and help people to understand that it is okay not to be okay.
“During the pandemic, I was also battling cancer, and my mental health was suffering,” she said. “The Gray Matters was a reminder during these times that I wasn’t alone in feeling the way that I did.”
“I am hopeful that our GMC chapter will help at least one person, even if it is in a small way.”
Missing potential suicide signs
Suicide continues to be an epidemic in the U.S., claiming 47,511 lives in 2019 and 45,979 in 2020, according to the CDC. That far outpaces homicides in the U.S., which totaled 21,570 in 2020, itself a 30% jump from 2019.
Among two prominent recent suicides were former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst – who died Jan. 30 at age 30, after jumping from the building in Manhattan where she lived – and Peter Robbins, the original voice actor for Charlie Brown in the early animated Peanuts specials, who died by suicide last month, at 65.
Robbins struggled with bipolar disorder, and was sentenced to prison in 2015 for making criminal threats. He was released in 2019 and often urged people to get professional help if they were battling mental-health challenges or addictions.
Kryst won the Miss USA title in 2019 while representing North Carolina. She also had a legal career and worked as a TV reporter.
DeGreve said that Kryst’s death was heartbreaking, “because sometimes the happiest people are the ones who are struggling the most,” she said. “The people you feel like you don’t need to worry about. What’s hard about someone who’s struggling is, often you might now know they’re struggling because they don’t show the signs that you might see in someone who’s outwardly struggling. That’s almost more worrisome.”
That’s why it’s important to check in on the people around you, she said.
GMC stresses that it’s OK to not be OK, and being vulnerable doesn’t mean you are weak.
“There’s this narrative we have in society – if you’re a leader or a celebrity, if you’re a person in public that’s highly looked up to – that you can’t show your emotion because it makes you weak,” DeGreve said, noting white men account for more suicides than any other group.
“We need to eradicate that, because in my mind it doesn’t make sense that vulnerability and weakness would go together,” she said. “Vulnerability is a strength.”
The two suicides of her own friends recently were shocking, DeGreve said.
“It was heartbreaking because I had been around both of them during the times they might have been struggling and I didn’t pick up on the signs. And I blame myself for that.”
“That’s where this issue gets really hard,” she said. “If you don’t know someone’s struggling and something happens, it’s easy to feel so much guilt.”
She also knew someone at Alleman during high school who died by suicide.
“I was really distraught after the suicide, because I thought to myself, was there something I could have done?” DeGreve recalled. “I can’t imagine how family and friends feel.”
“No one should ever feel guilt or shame for a suicide death, but at the end of the day, we just have to keep working toward this together, ‘cause the only way this issue is gonna get better is if every single person works to make it better,” she said.
The QC group Foster’s Voice — Suicide Awareness posted about Kryst on its Facebook page:
“We know there is never one single reason for someone taking their own life. However, one thing Cheslie did talk about publicly was that she was often trolled on social media for not being pretty enough and having a ‘manly’ body. She would often have to shut off comments on her posts on Instagram and videos just because of this and the way it negatively affected her. Because people were cruel to her.”
Partnering with Foster’s Voice
Foster’s Voice was founded by Kevin Atwood to honor his son Foster, a 2016 United Township High graduate who planned to be a police officer, and took his own life at 19, in July 2017.
GMC and Foster’s Voice work together on the same mission. DeGreve is social media marketing manager for Foster’s Voice.
“I’ve learned a lot from them in this space, and they’ve really helped me just in my own advocacy efforts,” she said. Foster’s Voice is aimed more at people who’ve lost someone close to suicide – this past December, DeGreve lost two she knew (both in their 20s, in the same week) to suicide, though she hadn’t been super close to them.
The monthly Foster’s Voice support group meets next Feb. 12 at 4:30 p.m., at 437 35th Ave., East Moline. The group is for those who struggle with a mental illness or who have lost a loved one to suicide. In the past 4 1/2 years, the organization has given out thousands of bracelets to spread the message and advocate for suicide awareness. They hand out free pamphlets, resource cards and other information useful for people in need.
“I also feel we’re very focused on getting people to stay – it doesn’t matter what age, doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve been or where you’re going,” DeGreve said. “What matters to us is that you stay, so you can enjoy a happy life.”
What is wild about mental health, people can get depressed quickly from something traumatic, or hereditary, or a financial stressor, she said. “Maybe you haven’t had a mental health diagnosed condition before, you still can be as much at risk. There a lot of people who die by suicide who have never been diagnosed.”
Foster’s Voice and GMC both presented Kevin Hines, one of the world’s leading suicide-prevention advocates, as the keynote speaker for their “Can’t Replace You” – a conference held Sept. 30, 2021 at the Rock Island Holiday Inn.
Hines is a hero of DeGreve’s, and she hosted him on her “Surviving the Suck” podcast in January 2021. Her most recent guest was Ryan Nesbit, co-chair of the Iowa chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who lost his best friend to suicide in 1991, at age 15.
An in-demand voice in the QC
DeGreve – who earned an Emerging Leader Award (honoring women age 18-29) from Women Lead Change in October 2021 – is an in-demand speaker across the QC.
“I love what she stands for,” Altease Ramsey (himself a motivational speaker, poet, and musical artist) said recently. DeGreve saw him give a 2019 TEDx talk about overcoming his depression and asked him to serve on the GMC board.
Ramsey’s mother died in 2016 when he was 19, and he’s used poetry as a coping mechanism, proudly displaying vulnerability. He supports DeGreve working so hard to start high school chapters.
“It’s amazing that youth are willing to participate and have passion to bring it to their schools,” Ramsey said.
“I’m her mentor, but this should be the other way around because she’s so amazing,” Kristen Egger of Muscatine said of DeGreve, noting she’s mentored her the past year through Lead(h)er, bonding over their Catholic faith. “I have no words for Haley and how mature and impressive she is. She blows my mind. She is one in a million.”
Her suicide prevention work is so important, and Egger relates since one of her best friends lost her son to suicide at 18.
“I think about I have an 8-year-old son, and she sheds light on that, because when you’re 10 and then in middle school, those are some of the highest suicide rates and she shows how, let’s not even get to this place,” Egger said, noting Haley’s compassion and volunteerism are driven by her religion. “She is so inspiring.”
DeGreve spoke at the regional Girl Scouts Leadership Conference on Feb. 2 at Moline High. She presented to middle-school girls, focusing on self-advocacy, asking for help and self-care. The girls’ biggest issue is bullying, DeGreve said.
“They get bullied at school and when they get home, it continues online,” she said. “We talked a lot about, how do you stand up for yourself; how do you get other people involved if you’re being bullied?”
“It’s really hard for me to turn down a speaking opportunity, because I’m constantly thinking, what if there’s someone who really needs to hear it and if I don’t go, I feel like I’m missing people,” DeGreve said.
“I just hope I’m doing the right thing, making a difference where I can and do the best I can with the life I’ve got,” she said. She’ll be keynote speaker at the 9th-annual “Have A Heart for the Homeless” Luncheon on Saturday, Feb. 12th.
The proceeds of this event support programs and services for Christian Care and Humility Homes & Services — two organizations making a real impact in the QC.
“Homelessness in the Quad Cities is something I’m really passionate about,” DeGreve said. “I’ve seen that many people who haven’t been able to afford mental health resources, they often then become homeless, because they can’t get a job. They can’t the right treatment for their brain.
“There are so many issues with our mental health system, that if we could fix those, we could fix the homeless issue,” she said. “I’m really passionate about that, because I feel for anyone who’s homeless. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to go home and have a safe place to lay your head at night.”
Many people who end up homeless are due to situations beyond their control and we need to have more compassion, DeGreve said.
“For that talk, I want to drive home the need for more mental health care,” she said. “Being homeless is a traumatic experience. No one would ever choose to be homeless.”
“Let’s work to make their lives better – give them resources and opportunities to better their situation,” DeGreve said. “A lot of it is, people haven’t gotten a break, or opportunities to better themselves. Maybe it’s they have addiction issues, and they’ve never been able to get the right treatment.”
The “Have a Heart” event is the two groups’ annual fundraiser.
“If you’re homeless, you matter just as much as anyone else,” DeGreve said. “It doesn’t make you less of a person. What that means is, somewhere along the line, the system – humanity – has failed you, and it’s a shame. A lot of these people just need extra help, extra resources and extra opportunities.”
If you’re having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, at 800-273-8255. Trained counselors will listen, understand how your problems are affecting you, provide support, and connect you to resources if necessary.
Starting this July, the lifeline will be available by calling 988. The current Lifeline phone number will always remain available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, even after 988 is launched nationally.