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Tap dancer turned Valedictorian shares important mental health message

Graduations on tap for University of Southern Queensland

The last time Jay Stevens set foot at the Ipswich Civic Centre, he was tearing up the stage with his tap-dancing moves.

Five years later, the former dancer will return to the stage to present a Valedictorian speech at his University of Southern Queensland graduation tomorrow (July 27).

"Performing let me be someone else, but delivering a speech that requires you talk about yourself in front of hundreds of people is a lot different," said Mr Stevens, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) with distinction.

"I often downplay what I've overcome to get where I am and how hard I've worked to get the achievements I've received.

"It will be a good opportunity for me to acknowledge just how far I've come, thank my family for all their support, and to congratulate all my fellow graduates on their achievements."

It'll be a full-circle moment for the Ipswich-raised student, who has battled anxiety and depression most of his life, particularly in his teenage years when he found it "impossible" to attend high school.

"I had always been a sensitive kid, but it wasn't until I was around 16 that my mental health began to decline," he said.

"I had dissociative episodes where everything felt distant and dream-like.

"It felt like my life ground to a halt.

"I dropped out of school before Year 10 and took a much-needed break from the pressure I was putting on myself to succeed."

Mental illnesses are becoming more common among young people, with depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders among the leading causes of illness.

One of the biggest challenges for Mr Stevens was getting access to mental health support.

"At some places, I was too young, while at others, the waiting lists were so long that by the time I would receive help, I was no longer eligible for their services or would only get a few months of treatment before I was considered too old," he said.

"Mobile apps and online counselling services weren't sufficient, but my mental health wasn’t severe enough to warrant hospitalisation.

"I had fallen into an invisible gap of referrals, rejections and recommendations until I finally found some specialists in Brisbane; however, the wait was still incredibly long.

"When you're in a bad place with mental health, the hardest thing is knowing you'll need to wait another six months before you can receive the help you need; you struggle to imagine yourself getting through the day, let alone what the future could hold."

After getting the care he needed, Mr Stevens took his psychiatrist's advice of returning to school by attending Brisbane School of Distance Education.

Determined to use his personal experience with mental health to help others – particularly those who fall through the gaps of existing services – Mr Stevens decided to tap into a career in psychology by enrolling at the University of Southern Queensland.

He took every opportunity to develop his knowledge and practical skills during his studies, including participating in a research scholarship project.

"The most enjoyable part of university for me was the learning. I loved when certain topics in class would resonate with me and my experiences," he said.

"Late 2021, I received a scholarship that allowed me to work on multiple psychology research projects.

"I got learn practical skills and discover new interest areas, such as coding, which drove my desire to focus on research and statistics in psychology.

"I'd like to use my statistics knowledge to help psychologists running research projects to understand the full potential of their data."

Mr Stevens' journey is one of many to be celebrated over two days of graduations at the Ipswich Civic Centre this week (July 26 & 27).

Now living in Toowoomba to undertake a Graduate Diploma of Science, majoring in Mathematics and Statistics, Mr Stevens said the theme of his Valedictorian speech would be ‘rising above the challenges’.

"I'm excited to share my message of endurance, persistence and staying true to what you value as a person," he said.

"COVID transformed our learning experience, so I want to give all the graduates a few moments to accept that they've made it – that their degree is over and now the future is theirs."

man smiling in a suit
Valedictorian Jay Stevens will graduate with a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) at the Ipswich Civic Centre.