Tori Pederson

Tori Pederson tries to use social media as a means to help others who are dealing with mental health issues.

Not all dark places look the same.

Tori Pederson reached her own point of despair at the age of 20, as she lay in bed after her weight plummeted to 86 pounds. Weak and dispirited, she wondered if this was the end.

“It happened really fast,” she recalled. “I was to a point where I rolled over in bed and yelled at my mom because I thought I was dying.”

Pederson experienced depression as a teenager, when she faced bullying in high school. She was attending college and believed she had defeated all past demons when signs of depression, severe anxiety and then the eating disorder all hit at the age of 20. Now, after emerging from her own absolute darkness, Pederson makes it her goal to lift others who find themselves in a similar abyss.

“Someone has to be the light,” she said. “That’s how I try to be.”

More than 1 in 5 adults has some form of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The average person spends just under two hours a day on social media.

In fact, mental illness and technology are so common that it’s easy to ignore both in the day-to-day hubbub of life. What makes Pederson unique, and what got her included in this year’s 20 Who Count feature, is her desire to fuse these two seemingly distinct elements of modern life.

The annual News-Press 20 Who Count feature recognizes those who make our community a better place, through acts of kindness and involvement with volunteer agencies. Some are well-known community figures, like long-time pastor Dr. Scott Killgore or Missouri Western State University music professor Dr. Elise Hepworth. Others, like Pederson, work in the background and quietly make a difference. Stories on this year’s recipients are inside today’s edition and available online at www.newspressnow.com/20whocount.

At the age of 25, Pederson operates her own cleaning business and fits the model of adult sensibility. Her blue hair implies youth and a lighthearted nature, but this St. Joseph woman hasn’t forgotten where she’s been.

She participates in online videos to bring awareness to mental illness. In speeches to public service organizations, she puts a human face on what can be a public policy abstraction. Most all, she turns the negativity of social media on its head with thousands of online messages designed to uplift those who are struggling with mental health issues of their own.

“I dedicated my life to making others feel better,” she said.

Peterson’s latest venture involves a closed Facebook group where those with similar experiences get together for food and comfort. The group has taken off, with as many as 15 people expected at the next gathering.

One national organization asserts that peer-to-peer support groups can be an important part of coping with mental illness.

Most adults with mental illness aren’t used to talking about their conditions in social situations. But a peer support group, possibly unlike anywhere else for the participants, is a judgment- and stigma-free zone, so they’re more open to sharing,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness said in a recent blog post.

Pederson said those in the group aren’t diagnosing or judging. They’re just trying to help.

“I am not only trying to save them, I am trying to save me as well,” she said. “We’re all going through similar things.”

— Greg Kozol

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.