“Before it happened to me, I felt like it was something that only happened to other people,” Montclair State University Alumna Gianna Natale said, recalling the life she knew before everything changed.
Natale overcame tremendous obstacles on her journey to graduation, but through everything, she has remained focused on being a source of support for those in need. Natale always knew she wanted to make a difference, but it was her high school guidance counselor that inspired her to pursue a similar path.
“I wanted to help others how she helped me,” Natale said. “I don’t think there was a time that I doubted this was the area I needed to be in.”
Natale decided to major in family and child studies, with a minor in psychology. However, faced with new experiences and new responsibilities, she struggled to acclimate during her first year at Montclair State. Her anxiety had intensified and was causing her to develop physical symptoms, like stomachaches and headaches.
“I really learned how powerful anxiety can be, but I think it’s given me an upper hand in this field because I know what it’s like,” Natale said. “It’s helped me to relate to others and empathize with their concerns.”
Eventually, Natale was able to overcome her fears and began to flourish. She was recognized for her academic achievements on the dean’s list and joined the Kappa Omicron Nu honor’s society.
Natale found a sisterhood through Sigma Delta Tau. She was drawn to the sorority’s philanthropy initiatives and organized the expansion of their community service locations to CUMAC, a nonprofit food bank in Paterson, New Jersey.
Natale explained how this experience gave her a renewed sense of purpose and was one of her proudest achievements during her undergraduate career.
“It made me feel really good to give my time, and I never would have found that without [Sigma Delta Tau’s] community service hours,” Natale said.
Then, on Dec. 4, 2016 during Natale’s junior year, she got a call that she needed to come home. Her father, Marty Natale Jr., had died by suicide. Natale was in the midst of preparing for finals when she heard what had happened.
Natale was shocked and had a hard time processing the loss of her dad but wanted to honor his memory by completing the semester.
“I was in a blur, but I was able to go back and take my finals,” Natale said. “I made myself finish because that’s what he would have wanted. I knew it meant so much to him, and he was so proud of me for going to college. That really helped drive me and I’m so thankful that I knew that.”
After Natale returned, she reached out to Montclair State’s office for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). She realized she needed help with the grieving process so she could continue to pursue her education.
“I desperately wanted someone to talk to on campus, and it was so helpful to have someone there every week,” Natale said. “I think it’s so important that students know what’s available to them. There is help.”
During her time at Montclair State, Natale began interning at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls in their teen center. Alongside the mental health clinician, she ran a stress management group. Natale says the experience led her to determine that she belonged in the social work field.
Natale ultimately finished her last year with straight A’s and shared that she didn’t realize her strength until she was faced with adversity.
“I knew I was raised with some degree of resilience, but I didn’t know how much I was capable of until I really had to use it,” Natale said.
Natale is now enrolled at Rutgers University and plans to graduate in May 2019 with a master’s in social work. She’s still considering a career as a clinical social worker so she might be able to help others with grief and suicide-specific loss.
“Using my hardships to help other people is really important to me,” Natale said.
Natale currently works on the child study team at her former alma mater, Manalapan Englishtown Middle School, where she helps other students find resources to engage with their education and overcome challenges.
“I really want to help someone want to help themselves,” Natale said. “If they feel lost, I want to help them find their way.”
Every September, Natale’s family participates in Out of the Darkness Walks, which is offered through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP.) Donations go toward providing more programs through the AFSP, as well as coordinating survivors’ groups and future suicide prevention walks.
At first, Natale’s family was hesitant to share their story, but when they realized it might make a difference in someone else’s life, they decided to use their social media platforms to advocate for the cause.
“We weren’t sure about it because that would mean being completely open and vulnerable to the world, but we decided that’s what we wanted to do so that we could help people and spread more awareness and education,” Natale said.
Natale will continue to honor her father by sharing information on suicide prevention in the hopes of effecting positive change.
“I share my story to help people realize that this is an issue. It makes me feel like I’m doing my part,” Natale said. “If I could help one person get help, or make them rethink things, then I would be successful for the rest of my life.”
To help fight the stigma of mental illness, Natale suggests starting a conversation with your loved ones and donating to organizations that provide education and mental health counseling to under-served communities. She encourages current students to prioritize their mental health and to remember to employ self-care throughout their studies.
Montclair State provides free mental health resources through CAPS, located in Russ Hall Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. throughout the semester.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.