Sharing her own story empowers alum to advocate for mental health

4 – minute read

Kelly Maguire’s journey to becoming a mental health advocate started in 2018 when she heard Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, speak at a mental health conference.


Seeing the guest speaker and students from all over the country share their experiences with mental health inspired something in Maguire, then a first-year student at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.


“I share my story for all the people in the audience who may also be struggling,” she said. “To show them that it is possible for life to become a bit lighter again and that we all have a voice in this world and a story worth sharing.”


Earlier this year, the Florida Gulf Coast University grad was invited to speak at the Kids’ Minds Matter gala, where she was awarded the 2024 Courtnage Courage in Our Community Award. The award recognizes an individual who has overcome challenges to positively affect others in the community. Kids’ Minds Matter, managed through the Lee Health Foundation, aims to raise awareness and promote pediatric mental and behavioral healthcare services.

FGCU graduate Kelly Maguire
Kelly Maguire

“Something really profound happens when you are presented with an award of courage after sharing some of the most painful parts of your past with the world,” said Maguire.


“There is so much strength in being able to take something you’ve gone through in life and use it as fuel and inspiration to keep moving you forward.”


Maguire has struggled with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from a very young age. She went from feeling “extremely hopeless,” she said, to discovering a sense of empowerment through sharing her story.

FGCU graduate Kelly Maguire
Kelly Maguire speaks at the Kids’ Minds Matter gala, where she was awarded the 2024 Courtnage Courage in Our Community Award. Photos submitted.

“I still have days where I struggle, but now I’m no longer choosing to identify as the ‘girl with mental illness and trauma,’ but instead choosing to be defined as the girl who overcame,” said Maguire.


For Maguire, this advocacy means, “showing up for myself in this world, as well as for so many other people who have faced stigma in one form or another.”

“My goal as an advocate is to help normalize the conversation around mental health through sharing my lived experience with mental illness and also providing mental health education to all audiences,” she said. “Ever since I can remember, I have had a passion to help people, especially those struggling with mental health, which is why it was an easy decision for me to pursue a psychology degree.”


Maguire first connected with Kids’ Minds Matter by volunteering while working on her associate’s degree at Florida SouthWestern, which she finished in 2020. After transferring to FGCU, she continued with the organization as a behavioral health intern, helping organize events designed to help impart knowledge and spread awareness about mental health. She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2022.


Her goal, she said, is to use her degree as a platform to support her advocacy journey.


“I had no idea until college that being a mental health advocate was an option, and now I hope to use my degree to provide mental health education, both through the coursework I’ve learned as well as through my journey with mental health,” she said.

Maguire faced one of the lowest points in her life when she was transitioning to college after moving to Florida from Maine. Terrified as she was of asking for help, she took a leave of absence and entered a residential treatment center.


“Treatment allowed me the space to finally process and heal from so much of the trauma I was going through before I left,” she said.


Maguire said she found a supportive community at FSW and in FGCU’s Integrated Studies Department, citing Maria Roca and Debra Giambo as two main influencers in her life.

“Dr. Roca’s class, ‘The Contemplative Life,’ was life-changing and such a crucial part in my healing journey,” she said. “And it was largely [through] Dr. Giambo’s ‘Advocacy in Action’ course that I was able to find the courage to believe in my voice and my ability to create change in this world.”


Giambo said Maguire “began as a humble and somewhat quiet student” in her course. But it became clear where Maguire’s passions lay when she began building an advocacy project that went beyond course requirements.


“I hold deep respect for Kelly and her passionate, yet reasoned and effective advocacy,” said Giambo. “Although she continues to be soft-spoken, she is passionate, and people realize that she knows what she’s talking about. She also gets and holds people’s attention by backing up her claims with grounded information and logic.”

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