It took eight years of struggle and perseverance to get to graduation in a personal battle that Alyson Dempsey says she fights each and every day. Yet, she’ll continue her higher education pathway after Commencement.
Her academic achievements are remarkable, yet it took her eight long years to achieve her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. She says she wants to share her story to bring greater understanding for those who struggle with mental health challenges.
The National Institute of Mental Health states that mental health disorders affect one in 10 Americans. The World Health organization has also reported mental health disorders as one of the leading causes of disability in the United States.
Many conditions can strike during adolescence, as what Alyson experienced. The typical anxiety that peers might experience in encountering a new situation or taking a test was not what she was going through. It was much worse. It became debilitating. She was absolutely suffering. Mental Health America reports that anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million people each year.
Alyson – now 26 years old – started out as a full-time student at UC, but says she had to cut back her class schedule because of her mental health struggles, which also affected her physically.
“Three years ago, I was not able to go to class by myself and wasn’t driving much at all. Presently, I drive myself to UC’s campus each day.
“My recovery is slow and sometimes takes steps backwards, but I try to never give up my hope,” she says. “It took me eight years to earn this degree, but I did it. I didn’t let my immense physical and mental suffering destroy the dreams that I had for myself. I did have to modify my pace, but I never gave up,” she says.
She says she found amazing support from her sisters of Chi Omega Sorority when she was an active member in her early years on campus. She says she also received a great deal of emotional support from UC’s Disability Services Office, as well as the support to help her achieve academic success, such as providing note takers and quiet areas to take exams.
The Disability Services Office is dedicated to empowering students with disabilities through the delivery of reasonable accommodations and support services while educating the UC community to see beyond disabilities to the richness of inclusion. Program Director Michael Southern says that through these offices, college campuses are growing in diversity and students with disabilities are achieving the dream of a higher education – a different story from generations ago, when laws such as the American Disabilities Act and support services were not in place.
“Their emotional support, as well as the academic accommodations that they provided, were key components to my success in college. I also had wonderful professors,” Alyson says. “They were very understanding of my challenges, but also recognized my immense effort and high achievement.”
“She is very hard working,” says Giao Tran, a UC associate professor of psychology. “She really touched my heart and inspired the classroom in talking about her disability.”
Despite her struggles, Alyson says she did not feel out of place at UC, a large, urban university. “UC has a special way of including everyone and making everyone feel accepted,” she says.
She has also been a longtime advocate for children who have experienced suffering. Her service has included volunteering at Stepping Stones – a summer camp for children with special needs – when she was in high school. She also volunteered at Cincinnati Childrens Hospital Medical Center during her early years in college. She says her service at the hospital involved volunteering in the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders as well as in an activity center.
She says she has now applied to earn her master’s degree through the UC School of Social Work, in the hope that she can become a play or recreational therapist for children with special needs.
“If this illness wanted to break me, it’s done a good job trying, but it’s not going to win,” says Alyson. “I have lots of love to give to the world, and with love, miracles can happen.”