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No longer silent
Leader tells of family’s struggles
McCoy's mother and maternal grandfather, who both suffered from mental illness leading to suicide, pose together in an undated family photo. - photo by Submitted
All too often, stories about mental illness go untold, help is not sought and those at the center of a crisis remain quiet.

Nicole McCoy recently broke that silence.

“My family has struggled with mental illness in some capacity for, quite honestly, my entire life,” she told members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness during a recent meeting.

“But my family never really confronted it, never talked about it, never acknowledged it. It was always very hushed.”

Many members of the NAMI Forsyth, Dawson and Lumpkin chapter shook their heads in understanding. McCoy’s story may be unique, but with one in four families affected by mental illness, she is not alone.  

Her experience is a motivator in her work as executive director of Forsyth County Community Connection, where she coordinates the efforts of the county’s nonprofit organizations.

Eric Spencer, executive director of NAMI Georgia, said McCoy “provides the connection to other resources.”

“And with her telling her story, it made an immediate connection with everybody because they knew that she wasn’t just there coming in preaching at them,” Spencer said. “She is a part of it.”

When McCoy was still a young girl, her maternal grandfather and cousin took their own lives. Both her mother and grandmother had spent some time at a mental health facility.  

Growing up, McCoy received community help in dealing with her own severe panic and anxiety disorder. With that support, she was able to graduate from college and get her life on track.

“I met my husband. I got married. I thought things were wonderful,” she said. “We moved to Forsyth County. Everything was great and I was back near my mom.”

But everything soon changed.

“Two and a half years ago, my mother committed suicide,” she said.

“I said we can no longer be silent about this issue. I felt like my family could no longer endure this anymore ... so I became very determined to be vocal about it.”

Beginning with her mother’s funeral, McCoy began sharing her story with people who could influence change.

Like her own family, many are in denial about the prevalence of mental illness, she said. Time and time again, the cases she sees in her line of work — abuse, poverty, neglect and crime — often are the product of mental illness.

But reflecting on her own childhood, McCoy knows it’s not always obvious.

Her mother volunteered at their church and other community organizations. She enjoyed success as president of the Atlanta chapter of the American Business Women’s Association. She loved parades and appeared to be “balanced with tremendous confidence and drive.”

“We had a very traditional mother-daughter relationship and fought over what clothes I was wearing, but we would find ourselves singing Elvis songs while baking,” McCoy said after the meeting.

Behind closed doors, however, McCoy said things back then were different. They were also difficult for her to understand and manage.

“I often thought the low points were my fault,” she said. “As I grew older, there were days that I felt more like the parent in our relationship, the one trying to create order and routine.”

Many in the county know her story, including those who sit on the county commission.

“When I’m the one speaking to them about it and telling them my story, it’s a lot more challenging for them to say no, because I’ve been honest with them,” she said.

“It’s about thoughtfully telling the story and being honest and putting the human face to it.”

McCoy encouraged others at the monthly meeting to do the same.

“We are making tremendous strides, but I think that there are many more to be made,” she said.