MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Five years and four failed suicide attempts after the onset of her mental illnesses, Delaina Zerafa has spent a lot of time going in and out of treatment facilities. But at last, the 18-year-old is in a good place and ready to give back and help others who might be struggling with some of the same issues.
“As young as the age of six, I would run up and down a hill before I ate my food or my snack because I felt too big,” Zerafa said. “I wasn’t comfortable in my skin.”
Zerafa has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder as well as bulimia accompanied by anorexic tendencies.
The problems started when she was 13 and she began to seek treatment. But her struggles didn’t stop her academic achievements. An A-plus student, Zerafa maintained her grade-point average throughout high school and has accepted a $20,000 scholarship from Pace University where she will attend next fall. Since her last stay in an Illinois facility after a suicide attempt the day after her 18th birthday, things have been looking up and she’s feeling more in control.
“I’ve been out since Jan. 9,” Zerafa said. “I have thought about purging, I’ve thought about cutting, I’ve thought about suicide. But it comes to my mind in one ear out the other so I’ve learned how to deal with it.”
Zerafa said she doesn’t know where her illnesses came from. She said she has always done well in school, had friends and a loving supportive family.
“My parents provided a lot of stability, but it was me who created the instability,” she said. “My thoughts ate away at me and I don’t know where that came from.”
Zerafa is working with the organization Bring Change to Mind to create mental health awareness and to end the stigma and discrimination that those who suffer from mental illness often face.
In April, Zerafa spoke to 10 health classes at Mahopac High School over the course of two days, talking about her experience and letting students know about the resources available to them. She said a huge talking point in her speeches is to let kids know that they are not alone.
“If I reach one kid in a classroom of 25 I did my job,” she said. “And I’m getting five to six kids coming up and saying ‘thank you’ or ‘that really touched me’ or ‘I understand a lot better now.’”
Zerafa said that in her experience, this stigma prevents younger people from seeking out the help they need for fear of being judged or misunderstood.
“People hear others say, ‘Oh, I want to kill myself right now.’ If kids are having suicidal thoughts they aren’t going to come out and say that because people joke about it all the time,” she said.
Zerafa survived attempts of her own and lost her best friend to suicide when she was 16 so she takes those comments very seriously.
“It is not something to throw around,” she said. “I had four suicide attempts and I still survived all of them. Some people aren’t as lucky; they have one and they’re done.”
Along with her work as an advocate for Bring Change to Mind, she is working on a documentary about her experiences and her progress. Cadge Productions is producing the documentary free of charge, and hosting an event, “Erasing the Stigma,” Thursday, May 19, at the Mahopac Library. Cacciatori Pizza will donate five pies to the event and Bucci Brothers Deli will donate food as well. The event will be held from 7-8 p.m.
Whitney Woerz, an upcoming musician and advocate for Bring Change to Mind, has worked with Zerafa recently on a few projects and said she supports Zerafa and everything she is working to accomplish.
“Seeing how strong she is and how she has the confidence to share her story with so many people is inspiring,” Woerz said.
Starting a non-profit of her own is in Zerafa’s long-term goals. She said she would want it to be similar to Bring Change to Mind and she is still playing with names. One thing she’s certain about is that she would welcome those with similar struggles to volunteer within her organization. Providing kids with a sense of purpose is a priority for her and a big part of her message.
“Start something that kids can get involved with,” she said, “A big thing with me is finding purpose. I have found purpose with what I’m doing right now. I’m doing things with my documentary and my event. If my future organization can give kids purpose, something to do and keep their minds busy it will keep their mental illnesses at a low point.”
Additionally, Zerafa said being involved in something is a huge self-esteem boost for both kids and adults.
“It makes me feel better to know I’m helping to change thoughts around mental illness,” she said.