HER: Student Alysha Cunningham

Health Equity Reimagined

Student Engagement

Duke Student Studies Mental Health Care After Chronic Disease Diagnosis

Alysha Cunningham
Alysha Cunningham

When Alysha Cunningham turned 18, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic autoimmune condition that causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. Suddenly, her world stopped. Activities she once cherished, such as traveling, playing tennis and going to social events, were no longer possible. Eventually, doctors were able to treat her physical symptoms with medication, but her mental scars remained.

“I grappled with overwhelming feelings of grief and hopelessness that were never addressed by my healthcare providers,” said Cunningham, of Chesapeake, Va. “I spent this whole year of my youth enduring the feelings of loss and grief and hopelessness before a physician finally addressed my mental well-being. My experience highlighted the significant gap in the integration of mental healthcare within the broader health system.”

Now a student at the Duke University School of Nursing, Cunningham is studying to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner so she can help others with mental health issues.

"This personal experience motivated me to assist others dealing with similar health challenges, helping them find their own sources of strength and hope. This ultimately led me to pursue a career in nursing.”

Alysha Cunningham

MSN - Psychiatric Mental Health Student

Cunningham’s journey at Duke has been a dynamic experience, with intellectual and emotional challenges that have propelled her personal growth and learning. While working toward her master of science in nursing at Duke, she was able to do simulations with actors that allowed her to apply practical, real- world skills within a supportive, low-risk learning environment.

“During one such simulation, I found myself reeling from several mistakes, subsequently berating myself for not achieving perfection,” she said. “Yet, a professor provided invaluable guidance, attentively listening to my concerns and emphasizing that mistakes are an integral part of the learning journey. Rather than simply dismissing my feelings of inadequacy, the professor offered a new perspective – one that fostered empowerment rather than discouragement.”

That kind of support is what makes Cunningham glad she chose Duke. Once she earns her masters in nursing, she plans to become a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and pursue her doctor of nursing practice degree at Duke.

“The DUSON faculty have demonstrated a unique and refreshing personal commitment to functioning as expert companions with the students. It’s as if they all remember what it felt like for them to be students,” Cunningham said. “As a result, I feel personally acknowledged, not lost among a sea of faces. I think this unique approach defines Duke.”

Alysha Cunningham was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at 18, but her resulting mental health struggles took more time to diagnose. She is studying to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner to help others with mental health issues.

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