Positively JAX: August award winner is using her life experience to help people struggling with mental illness

This month’s Positively JAX winner is using her life experience to change the experience for people struggling with mental illness and the people who love them.

After losing her son to suicide, Sheryl Johnson saw there were some clear gaps in the systems that needed addressing. With her village, she’s already had a major impact on the patient experience and through her nonprofit Hearts4Minds.

Five-year-old Alex didn’t flinch when a dragonfly landed on his nose, in fact, he posed for the picture.

“Alex was super quirky and fun. He was a huge nature lover from the time he was tiny,” Johnson said.

But as he got older, his mom noticed a change. She said in middle school, it was clear he wasn’t OK.

“I think he really started to struggle with going to school and withdrawing. And we did notice and got him help early on. And he did great, but he was a minor, and we were his parents,” Johnson said.

When he turned 18, Alex went off to college on his own and not having that support took a toll.

“He called and said, ‘I think you better come get me.’ And by the time we got to him, it was clear that there had been a pretty good period of time where he had been probably in deep, deep depression,” Johnson said.

She brought her oldest child home but couldn’t save him.

“We went out of town in August of 2017. And he had bought some pills on the street, we assume to make him feel better or whatever. They had fentanyl in them. And he passed away on Aug. 12,” Johnson said.

Before he died, Johnson said, they fought for his life but she believes a broken system didn’t help.

“We also weren’t being given information about how to help him. Some of the doctors told us he had to do it on his own, sort of this notion that his disease was a personal choice,” Johnson said.

On the one-year anniversary of Alex’s death, Hearts4Minds Inc. was established. One of the biggest accomplishments was establishing a Dragonfly Care Coordinator at Baptist Hospital. It’s a liaison between the doctor and patient, connecting patients and their families to resources and in five short years, he’s touched more than 1,000 lives.

“He stays in touch with both the patient and the family, makes those phone calls out to the family to say, ‘I’m just checking in. How are things going?’ And sometimes people will say, ‘You know what, you’ve called like once a week for the last month, we’re good. You don’t have to call us anymore.’ And he’ll say, ‘Why don’t I call back in two weeks or in a month,’” Johnson said.

Hearts4Minds has commissioned 12 murals all around Jacksonville. One was just unveiled in San Marco last Saturday on what would have been Alex’s 29th birthday. The murals symbolize hope and empowerment, and there’s always a dragonfly present along with information to get help.

“I feel like Alex has converted from this weight of grief that I have carried around to a pillar of strength. And that’s why I can smile,” Johnson said. “He is my reason to go out in the community and help other people. And every time we save a life, and every time we do something, every time that care coordinator talks to another family, that’s his legacy. And so that’s joyful.”

Dragonflies start in the water and eventually develop wings and fly. Johnson believes they’re an incredible symbol of power and change and she’s using that motivation -- and her beloved picture of her little boy -- to save lives, and that’s Positively JAX.

About the Author:

Anchor on The Morning Show team and reporter specializing on health issues.