Eliza Smith knows what it’s like to struggle with depression.
The Land O’ Lakes 15-year-old, however, has learned some ways to help conquer her challenges.
She writes in a journal.
She adds up the positive things in her life, daily.
And, she does have successes: She has a 4.6 GPA.
She’s a former Miss Land O’ Lakes Teen USA, and is the current Teen Miss Earth Florida USA.
She will compete for the national Teen Miss Earth USA in January.
Now, she’s seeking to help others by sharing her story and advocating for mental health programs such as those offered by NAMI Pasco, a local nonprofit chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In a new normal, where COVID-19 is upending daily lives and increasing everyone’s stress levels, Smith sees mental health education as a calling.
“I think that this is what I was meant to do,” Smith said — about her goal of making a difference for others.
She said others in her family, including her mother, also have dealt with mental health issues in the past.
“It’s something I struggle with personally, so that’s why I care about mental health for others,” Smith said. “I do know what it’s like, and I know friends who struggle with depression and anxiety.”
In recent months, she has posted weekly video chats and podcasts on Instagram and other media platforms, specializing in one-on-one interviews with family and friends.
She also has completed volunteer service hours, along with other teens, in support of NAMI.
“She is passionate,” said Debbie Proulx, NAMI Pasco’s executive director. “She is willing to just put herself out there.”
NAMI is a national nonprofit with chapters nationwide.
Services include family based support groups, advocacy, one-on-one counseling, school partnerships, education, outreach and referrals.
NAMI Pasco has seen an astounding 1,456% increase in new calls from people needing services in the past year, largely due to the pandemic, said Proulx.
“There is a lot of anxiety and depression,” she said. “Last year it was bad, but not as bad as now.”
Proulx worries about the hostility arising from divisions over masks and vaccines.
“This is affecting everyone,” she said.
In-person support groups aren’t possible for now.
So, NAMI Pasco is relying on virtual support groups to discuss whatever issues people are facing, Proulx said.
“They are really supporting one another,” she said. “You will see disagreements, but at the end of the day, they are really supporting each other.”
The Land O’ Lakes teen said she has seen the impact of COVID-19 at school, as well, particularly while taking classes virtually.
“Everyone kind of stopped doing what they were doing,” Smith said. “I know kids who loved going to school who kind of slumped.”
She said she hopes her podcasts help educate people about mental health but also send the message that no one is alone.
Help is close by, she said, through organizations such as NAMI Pasco.
Smith said she prefers doing one-on-one interviews because that allows each guest to shine a light on his or her personal journeys.
She enjoys talking with people of all ages and backgrounds.
Her conversations are free-wheeling, funny and open to any topic though, sooner or later, they always get around to mental health education.
Being able to listen to the unique stories of everyone is what makes for a great society, Smith said.
“Your problems matter. You matter,” she said. “And always remember that.”
Smith grew up in Queens and Brooklyn, New York, but her family moved to Tampa about two years ago.
She attended Alonso High School before moving to Pasco County and enrolling at Land O’ Lakes High School.
She aspires to graduate a year early and to enroll at Duke University.
She plans to pursue a nursing degree, and is aiming to attain a master’s degree in nursing by age 25.
She has four completed podcasts, with more to come.
She is taking a brief break from her hosting duties to focus on SAT exams in October, when she also celebrates turning 16.
After the break, she intends to return to a routine of posting podcasts or video chats weekly or monthly.
One especially memorable podcast featured a frank discussion with her mother and her aunt.
“We had a really deep conversation and tears flowed,” Smith said.
The podcast “shows how to be vulnerable in a good way. Even if I have crazy dreams, my family supports me to have a better life than they had growing up in Queens.”
One of her passions is being involved in pageants, which she said encourages her growth and confidence, and has opened doors to her.
“I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity and try it out,” she said. “I got to volunteer and to promote my platform, and to inspire others to seek help.”
One door that opened was to NAMI Pasco and volunteer service.
“I truly love their organization and what they do,” she said.
For more information, visit NAMI.pasco.org, or call 727-992-9653.
By Kathy Steele
Published October 20, 2021