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Grateful SIU-E alum with mental illness praises mentor

"I'm paying it forward. I was incredibly helped by disability support services that matched me and paired me with Lora Miles."

Now retired, Lora Miles, the former associate vice chancellor of student affairs at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, seems unimpressed with her role mentoring students.

"I was just another mentor," said Miles.

But that's not the way Theresa Teller sees it. Teller and Miles met four years ago when Teller was a graduate student and Miles was assigned to be her mentor. At the time, Teller was struggling with severe mental illness. She recalls crying in Miles' office or during phone calls. Her schizo-affective thought disorder had symptoms of schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Even though Teller graduated with a 4.0 GPA, life was a daily struggle.

"Laura Miles said, 'be driven. The world is missing out in you.' And I just wiped away a tear because she believed in me and something that I didn't believe in for many years feeling limited with a label of having mental illness," said Teller.

Teller and Miles had a reunion of sorts Tuesday at SIU-E, where Teller shared her mental health journey in her "Tuning Out Stigma" program where she talks about her story and performs original compositions on the piano. They hadn't seen each other in a year, when Miles attended Teller's wedding.

"She was at my graduation and she's still with me to this day in my life," said Teller about her former mentor.

Returning to SIU-E is a way for Teller to say thank you for the mental health support she received. The current program that connects students and mentors is called ACCESS, Accessable Campus Community & Equitable Student Support. Teller says about 50 students are now paired with faculty and staff mentors and wants everyone to know how meaningful those relationships can be.

"I'm paying it forward. I was incredibly helped by disability support services that matched me and paired me with Lora Miles," said Teller. "And if my story of being driven will just change some people's lives as a stigma-fighting role model, then it's worth it."