MOLINE, Ill. — Editor's note: In honor of Women's History Month, "Her Impact Ignites" is a series celebrating women for their continued work in the community.
Haley DeGreve is the founder and president of The Gray Matters Collective. She found the inspiration to start the organization after battling her own mental health issues.
"In middle school and high school, I was bullied really bad. I learned now through counseling that brought out a lot of depression, anxiety, and PTSD from that experience," DeGreve said. "It was to the point of really not wanting to live anymore. It was two years ago that I, you know, had a plan. I knew what I was going to do, and I knew how I was going to do it."
She attended Augustana College, where she realized many of the students were also struggling with mental health.
"I was overhearing conversations in a coffee shop for my fellow students … I remember thinking, 'I'm going through that, too. Why are we not all talking about this collectively as a group?'" DeGreve explained.
She and 60 other students spearheaded a poster campaign on campus to spark conversation about the topic.
"We were having this huge event on campus to launch this poster campaign that we had done to get people talking about mental health problems," DeGreve said. "And to my surprise, hundreds of students showed up to that event. We ran out of chairs. We had people sitting on the ground lined out the door to talk about this issue."
DeGreve explains that the name of the organization, "The Gray Matters Collective," was influenced by different factors of mental health. She considered the science behind it all and the importance of community.
"Research was coming out to show that gray matter in your brain is a real thing. And if you have a loss of gray matter in your brain, it could indicate that you're struggling with a mental health problem," DeGreve said. "And then the other side of it are the psychologists, psychiatrists — the people who are working every day to make this issue better. And then there's people like you and I, in the middle, the everyday people in the gray area where maybe we struggle, maybe we don't struggle, but if we can get the people in the gray area, understand that each and every single one of us has a responsibility to take care of the people around us and to take care of ourselves so that we don't lose more people to suicide."
The organization has now expanded to three colleges and five high schools in the Quad Cities area. They all work on mental health awareness, suicide prevention and providing resources to students.
The chapter has biweekly meetings where they do yoga, hold support groups, meditate and invite guests who are professionals in the mental health field to provide support.
DeGreve runs the entire operation out of her car while she works a full-time job. And since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, her team had relied heavily on social media to reach others.
"So we had a young woman reach out to us on Friday, and said, 'I've had my dark times I've been there. But this one's lasted months, I don't know what to do. I just cannot get out of my head. It's really bad. It's so hard and I have no idea how to get through it anymore.' So I kind of just talked with her for probably about two hours," DeGreve said. "Every time I get a message like this, I try really hard to come back into check in a little bit later. So I'm going to send her a message today and make sure she's doing okay."
Haley shared that it's important for her to know that her struggles and constant battle to heal mentally are contributing to other's mental health success.
"I do this every single day for the moments where I have someone who calls me and is crying on the phone because they don't want to live anymore. And they don't even know where to start, " DeGreve said. "And so I do it for those moments because to know that my own impact my own story has helped someone else along the way. That to me means everything."
In honor of Women's History Month, Haley left a message for the women who fought the fight for mental health awareness before her.
"You have broken all the barriers necessary to get where we are today, and I am here today because of the work that you've done. Mental health just in general wasn't talked about, but especially among women because women are often seen as overemotional or aren't oftentimes taken as seriously as a man," DeGreve said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide you can call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255. That is a 24/7 confidential service and online chat options are available as well.