Cheryl Sugg Sharp ’96, ’01 was once told she was “too fragile” to handle college. But now this mental health advocate can add a national award to her three degrees (two bachelor’s and a master’s) from East Carolina University.
Sharp received the Voice Award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The award honors leaders in their field who educate the public and their peers about mental health.
“Receiving this award was the proudest moment of my life,” Sharp said. “I was really honored. It was such a gift to be on that stage with so many people working to make a difference in our field and in people’s lives.”
As the senior advisor for trauma-informed services at the National Council for Behavioral Health in Washington, DC, Sharp works with organizations around the country to coordinate suicide prevention and crisis services efforts. The council is the central industry association for America’s mental health and addictions treatment providers. With 2,300 members, the council serves more than eight million adults and children living with mental illnesses and addiction disorders.
Mental health issues and trauma are things Sharp has experienced first-hand. Her mother died as a result of mental health challenges, and then she dealt with challenges of her own. But eventually she decided that she was going to get her education so she could make a difference in the lives of people like her.
Sharp came to ECU as a “late learner” in her early 30s, balancing family with her studies. After completing two years of community college, she transferred to ECU, an easy decision since she was commuting every day from her hometown of New Bern. One of her community college professors was an ECU graduate who encouraged her to continue her education.
“I didn’t get a chance to ‘be a Pirate,’ but I still received a rich educational experience,” Sharp said. “I’m absolutely glad I went to ECU. I was a person, not a number, and the staff and professors really invested in me.”
Sharp double-majored in psychology and women’s studies in the first year that women’s studies was offered as a major in the mid-1990s. She was also one of the first people to graduate with honors in both degrees. She then pursued her master’s degree in social work, while raising her family.
After completing her degrees, Sharp worked for a time in hospice care and then social work, but became concerned about the state of the mental health system, and decided to start advocating for changes on a larger scale.
“Without a degree, my options would have been limited,” she said. “My degrees allowed me to gain experience in these fields and then enter advocacy work, and set me on a career trajectory from North Carolina to Washington, DC. At the national council, we support providers in doing the best work that they can.”
One of the most beneficial things about her education at ECU was gaining the ability to evaluate both quantitative and qualitative data, Sharp said.
“All my work today is based on taking research and theories to practices to implementation,” she said. “Having lived experiences with mental health issues, I can use my voice as someone who has been there. We’ve got to speak up and be who we are. Our goal is ensuring that all Americans have access to comprehensive, high-quality care that affords every opportunity for recovery and full participation in community life.”
By Jackie Drake