Student Profile: A.T. Helix
By Matt Windsor
She has a name for science and a passion for people. Ashley Taylor Helix (she goes by A.T., “which could represent the adenine and thymine base pairs in the double helix formation” of DNA, she says) is a junior from Huntsville majoring in neuroscience with minors in chemistry and psychology.
For the past year, Helix has had the chance to examine the brain structure of patients with schizophrenia in the lab of a world-renowned expert on the disease. But she is equally excited about helping her fellow undergraduates visualize the effects of mental illness using a more blunt instrument: backpacks—lots and lots of backpacks.
Helix, a member of the Global and Community Leadership Honors Program, is the founder and president of the UAB chapter of Active Minds, “a national organization whose goal is to change the conversation about mental health,” she says. On October 29, 2012, the group will bring to UAB a traveling event called Send Silence Packing, which gives “students an understanding of how big of an impact that suicide can have on a community,” Helix says.
“At the event, 1,100 backpacks will be laid out on the Campus Green,” Helix says. “That represents the number of college-aged students who complete suicide every year.” Send Silence Packing has two goals, Helix says. “One is for students to understand that there are people willing and able to help them if they are depressed or contemplating suicide; the second is for people to recognize the signs in their friends and to reach out to them.” The event “has never come to the South and rarely comes to new chapters,” Helix says, but thanks to support from several UAB organizations, “we were able to bring it to our campus.”
Class year: Junior
Major: Neuroscience, with minors in chemistry and psychology
Career goal: Become a clinical psychologist
Undergraduate research: Studying the glycosylation pathway in schizophrenia in the lab of James Meador-Woodruff, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology.
Extracurricular: Resident assistant; founder and president of Active Minds
Why age matters in mental health: “The reason Active Minds focuses on college campuses is that the typical age range for the development of a mental disorder or illness is 18 to 24. Because of the stigma of counseling and therapy, Active Minds encourages peers to tell students that it’s okay to seek help. People with a physical illness—cancer, for example—tend to have a support system, and the community reaches out to them. But when someone is diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder that support system can disappear, and they are deemed ‘crazy.’
“One of my goals after graduate school is to work on implementing an education program in high schools about the signs and symptoms of mental health. Not knowing about mental health and illness can cause many people to avoid treatment and cause even more problems later in life.”
Why I care about mental health: “I first started noticing the problem in my junior year of high school when I started working in my mom’s law office. At the time I was considering becoming an attorney, but I realized my true passion was helping people who were unable to help themselves. Most of her clients coming in for drug possession actually had a mental illness and were unaware they could get help; as a result, they turned to self-medication with illicit drugs. The fact that people were in desperate need of help and had been forgotten in our community really upset me.”
Why I listen: “Many people in our community and our state need help, but just don’t know who to talk to. Our society has a work, work, work mentality. We often lose sight of the fact that we are only human. You only get one life, and you can learn so much if you take a second to really listen to someone.”