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When Jeanine Hoff wore her sunglasses inside, it wasn’t to avoid eye contact.

When she spoke curtly to neighbors, friends and business contacts, it wasn’t to be brief or coarse or impolite.

She now realizes people probably mistook her aloof behavior as rudeness, but approximately a year ago, Hoff didn’t care.

Consumed by depression, she wore glasses to hide her red, glassy eyes and she spoke in clipped phrases because she couldn’t muster anything more. Her mind never turned off, and it never stopped belittling her.

“I didn’t understand. I was crying nonstop,” Hoff said. “If you have cancer or the flu, you do anything and everything possible to fix it. To live. Whatever medication or treatment there is, you do. With mental illness, you don’t want to live. You do the opposite.”

One day, Hoff just broke.

Leaving her job, she drove downtown, parked her car and took a walk. Her feet carried her to the top of the Main Street bridge. She thought about her situation, her life, her depression. She thought about jumping.

Then, collecting her strength, Hoff checked herself into the nearby Baptist Medical Center emergency room. For many, this is not the case.

More than 41,000 individuals die by suicide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults and the second leading cause among people ages 10 to 24.

In Florida, a state that consistently ranks 49th out of 50 for mental health spending, suicide rates sat much higher than that in the past. But in 2014, they evened out with the national numbers.

People who struggle with mental health can be anyone, Hoff said. People just like her, just like the people she encountered daily in the grocery store, at the mall, in Starbucks. Mental illness touches about 62 million individuals each year, states the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

So Hoff asks: Where is the sunshine in all that?

She decided, after a yearlong journey into depression, to create her own.

“I want to kick the door open,” she said. “Actually, I want to knock it down. I want to be mental health’s badass. I want to bring everyone together. … My greatest tragedy became my greatest triumph.”

Hoff’s nonprofit, called Where is the Sunshine?, began as a side project — first, to keep herself positive while dealing with depression, and then, to encourage others to do the same. Now, Where is the Sunshine? works to educate, motivate and inspire. On its website, it informs visitors the nonprofit does not offer counseling, but it does offer support.

Hoff calls it peer-to-peer mentoring.

According to Denise Marzullo, CEO of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida, peer-to-peer mental health support is a valuable service that many people who live with a mental illness benefit from. She cautions it should not replace medical and clinical treatment, but it can serve as a great complement.

However, Hoff struggled to find anything like Where is the Sunshine? in her own city.

Both before her treatment and for some time after, she felt no one understood what she was going through. She would use Google to locate people dealing with the same issues or forums she could use to vent her emotions. Nothing ever helped.

“I thought I’m just going to start an organization to connect people with other people,” Hoff said. “But also to be the person who connects not just individuals, but organizations, and to bring us all together under one umbrella. We are all working for the same goal. We have to work together.”

The organization isn’t huge yet. It just launched in February 2016, but she already has around 11,000 followers on social media who look to her for support and advice. Her ultimate goal: to partner with medical professionals and law enforcement to fill in the gaps left in traditional mental health treatment.

While at Baptist hospital, Hoff met a team of doctors and counselors. She said they believed in her and showed her how to get better. The stay eliminated her negative perception of both the hospital’s behavioral health ward and the people who relied on it for help. She saw a diverse group of individuals — all races, genders, religions, all ages.

Hoff realized she wasn’t alone. “When I left, I felt I was thrown to the wolves,” she said. “You leave there and you’re back in the real world. You’re back in your home. You’re back in that same space where you were crying into your pillow for days.”

That’s where her nonprofit comes in.

Since mental health resources remain stretched in Jacksonville and waiting lists for follow-up appointments are often long, Where is the Sunshine? is a shoulder to lean on.

She said: “I understand you because I’ve gone through what you’ve gone through. I know you can get through it because I got through it.”

Her passion seems to have no limits. Since leaving Baptist, she’s given a TEDxJacksonville talk, she’s spoken to high school students and college students. She’s reached out to groups like Active Minds and I Still Matter. She’s continued to grow her social media.

Now, she’s working on two children’s books: one for children with mental illness and one for children whose parents suffer from mental illness.

“Everyone knows someone with mental illness or has been affected in some way,” Hoff said. “These individuals are all over. They aren’t on some island, Mental Illness Island. They are across the country. To me, that’s the most important thing to take away.”

To help eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness, Hoff plans to launch This is My Brave in Jacksonville. The event, slated for May, has been presented across the United States. It celebrates individuals with mental illness by allowing them to share their stories through speeches, essays, monologues, song and poetry. Hoff is using the event as a fundraising venture to launch Florida’s first peer-to-peer mental health conference, Sunshine Peer Mental Health Summit.

@amanda.williamson       jacksonville.com    (904) 359-4665

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