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CALS Weekly

Reducing Stigma Around Help for Mental Health

Drawing on personal experiences, animal science major and mental health ambassador Leia Neely encourages struggling students to reach out for help.

Student Leia Neely holds a cow calf.

In her sophomore year in NC State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Leia Neely was isolating, self-sabotaging and suffering from severe anxiety and depression.

“I felt everything was crumbling around me,” says Neely, a Durham native who’s now a senior. “I knew that at the end of the day, for things to get better, I had to take a step for myself.”

And she did.

Neely went online, found the website for NC State’s Counseling Center and filled out paperwork to get support. In return, she received a lifeline: Though there were days she felt herself slipping back, she found herself slowly recovering as she engaged in one-on-one counseling sessions and mental health workshops.

In the two years since finding her footing with that support, Neely’s been giving back to the Counseling Center and her fellow students by serving as a mental health ambassador. Every chance she gets, she strives to destigmatize the act of reaching out for help and let struggling students know they aren’t alone.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m majoring in animal science, and my concentration is in ag industry. After I graduate, I’m going to take a gap year, and I would really love to work in shelters. Right now, I’m a volunteer at the Wake County Animal Center, and I enjoy getting to work with animals that are coming from high-stress situations and learning more about animal behavior and rehabilitation for these animals. 

What was your experience like in reaching out for help from the Counseling Center?

I’ve always been a person who hates asking for help, because I used to think that it made me weak or I would burden others. I also was afraid because the process was new. But I remember vividly the day I sat down outside of my dorm, went to the Counseling Center’s website, followed the directions and filled out the paperwork. All that took only 15 minutes. When I spoke with the triage counselor, she was so friendly and inviting, and I felt comfortable sharing a little bit of what I was feeling. She connected me with an individual therapist, and I took workshops on depression, anxiety and relationships.

Why did you decide to become a mental health ambassador?

I got involved after seeing a post on social media at the end of my sophomore year. The program drew me in because of its mission and purpose of destigmatizing mental health. I wanted to be part of something greater than myself and advocate for mental health for our Wolfpack community.

And as mental health ambassadors, we do that through giving presentations on topics including stress management, time management and the resources of Prevention Services and the counseling services.

We also host tabling events around campus. And we do a lot of fun events throughout the semester. We have therapy dog events that are really cool — I did a couple of those last semester. And we have other wellness events where students can decompress for a while and get their mind off class. 

Another big aspect is that we are trained on different topics — suicide awareness, Narcan (opioid overdose medication), LGBTQIA training and more. I really have appreciated learning how we can support as many students as possible.

What are some resources students can take advantage of to manage stress or feelings of depression or anxiety? 

There are some students who didn’t have good experiences with therapy in the past and don’t want to go back to that, so I really appreciate that the Counseling Center and Prevention Services have so many different opportunities that you can take.

You can do a workshop if you don’t necessarily want to do formalized therapy, or you can do a drop-in space and talk to other students and just mingle and get outside and take a hike. There are lots of ways that you can focus on your mental health and well-being.

For students who want another connection, CALS has an embedded clinician, Luke Strawn, who has weekly drop-in hours.

What have you gotten out of helping?

The biggest thing I have gotten out of being a mental health ambassador is the experience of talking to others and realizing that there are so many ways that people could be struggling — it’s not always the stressors that we have in academics or balancing activities on campus with academics. 

I have gained new perspectives on what people could be going through and how to address it — how to talk to people about their issues that they’re going through and be empathetic. I didn’t have all those skills in my toolbox before, so now I feel a lot better about being able to communicate with somebody who might be having a rough day.

Is there one thing that you wish the university would do to address mental health issues facing students?

I would say to ask more students for their perspective — asking students from all different colleges, departments, international students, everybody, ‘Where’s the disconnect? What do you guys need? What are the resources that we don’t have that we need to get?’ And increasing awareness of what students are facing and what resources are available. Editor’s note: Students are encouraged to share ideas about mental health and wellness services by emailing

What do you hope that students you speak to as a mental health ambassador take away?

I hope that the students I talk to take away that there is an abundance of resources on campus waiting for them when they are ready. I want them to know that they have support and that they aren’t alone when it comes to discussing their mental health.

Advocacy for yourself is key, and I always encourage students I talk to to reach out if they need help or if they want to learn more ways to practice self-care.