In the fall of 2021, Dina Coughlan crossed the stage to collect her diploma at an intimate commencement ceremony for the Woods College of Advancing Studies (postponed from the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19). Her father, standing proudly in the audience, took pictures to capture the moment—one his family hadn’t been sure would ever come.

Nineteen years earlier, Coughlan’s parents had been forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of their lives, committing their 19-year-old daughter to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, for mental health treatment after witnessing her increasingly life-threatening behavior.

“I still don’t know how they did that when I was crying in fear and begging them not to leave me,” Coughlan recalled. “I told them I would do better, that I would be ok, if they would just take me home with them. They knew that was not true, and they saved my life.”

It took nearly two decades of treatment for Coughlan to go from her lowest moment to her proudest accomplishment, and until several years ago, she refrained from speaking publicly about her experience. But this summer, at the urging of a Woods classmate, she delivered a heartfelt address to members of the congressional Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, chronicling her personal journey with mental illness and pushing for increased access to the medical facilities and therapies that saved her life.

“I was so honored to be asked to speak and it was a great experience,” she said afterwards. “For a long time there was a lot of shame around my story and I felt like I should just let the past fade away and be done, but that’s not how life works. You can’t let go of a 20-year battle; it’s part of who you are.”

Coughlan has been affected by mental illness for as long as she can remember. She began therapy in the third grade to treat her anxiety, but by the time she enrolled at Syracuse University, the condition had worsened, causing debilitating headaches. She dropped out and moved home, falling into a depression that eventually led to self-harm.

To this day, BC is my happy place. There’s such a feeling of community and love in the atmosphere and that was huge for me—I gained confidence in my abilities and my intelligence and left with a feeling of self-worth that I didn’t have before.

After her initial treatment at McLean, what saved Coughlan was access to consistent, long-term care at a facility that offered intensive, cognitive, and group therapy as well as dialectical behavior therapy, a type of psychotherapy used to treat mood disorders and change behavioral patterns. It took her 10 years to put her life back together, which included relearning how to hold a job, deal with stress, and even how to drive a car. During that time, Coughlan watched as patients with fewer resources than she had were released according to insurance requirements, only to be readmitted several months later.

“I knew these people would continue with this cycle of hospitalizations until they died,” she said in her address. “Anyone diagnosed with a mental illness needs a long-term plan. This is what I have been blessed to experience and this is what everyone deserves.”

During her final phase of treatment, Coughlan enrolled in a community college for the third time since dropping out of Syracuse. This time, she was ready, and after earning her associate’s degree she landed a prestigious internship with celebrity cook and television personality Rachael Ray. The position reignited Coughlan’s childhood dream of working in the arts and entertainment industry, but her lack of a bachelor’s degree was holding her back. At the urging of her parents, she went for an interview at Woods, and in 2017, she enrolled.

Being on the Boston College campus was life-changing for Coughlan, and at Woods, she found the type of supportive community she needed to rebuild her self-confidence. For three years, she studied communications, attended retreats, and formed lasting bonds with classmates with a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences.

“To this day, BC is my happy place,” she said. “There’s such a feeling of community and love in the atmosphere and that was huge for me—I gained confidence in my abilities and my intelligence and left with a feeling of self-worth that I didn’t have before.”

During her last semester, Coughlan was interning at Boston’s WCVB-TV when producers asked her and the other students to pitch, produce, and write their own episodes for the show “Cityline.” After her first few ideas were nixed, Coughlan proposed a segment on mental health that was met with enthusiasm. Inspired, she “rose to the occasion,” inviting state senators, mental health professionals, and advocates onto the show, including a man who had lost his son to suicide. Her guests encouraged her to share her own story, “and I thought, ‘ok, maybe it’s time,’” she recalled.

Today, Coughlan is an associate producer at GBH, where she writes and produces segments for the station’s development and membership division. She’s hoping to expand her work as an advocate for the millions of adults in the U.S. who struggle with mental illness, both by sharing her own story and pushing for increased access to care for those who need it. The feedback she’s received—from family, members of Congress, and complete strangers—who identify with her experience have convinced her that she’s on the right path.

“It’s still extremely difficult to share such intimate details of my life with people, but I realize that this battle isn’t just about me anymore,” she said in her address. “I believe God wants me to be the voice for the people who have no voice. So, as I stand here before you today, that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Alix Hackett | University Communications | August 2022