From corporate consultant to mental health crusader
Elaine Sephton spent most of her career feeling like an imposter. Now she's found her true calling.
WARNING: This story contains discussion of suicide. Please use good judgment and self-care in deciding whether to read it or find someone you can share and discuss it with. If you need help call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text line at 741741.
For most of her adult life, Elaine Sephton worked as a corporate consultant, primarily for Price Waterhouse Coopers, one of the largest accounting and professional services networks in the world. She was that woman you see at the airport on a Monday morning, dressed in a neatly tailored suit and matching pumps, carrying a briefcase, getting on a plane to fly to one city or another, spend a week in a hotel and return, “completely stressed,” for a hurried, harried weekend with family before heading out again.
She was good at her job. But the job wasn’t good for her.
“I was trying to act a certain way, talk a certain way, look a certain way, get my false nails (which meant I couldn’t type on my laptop) and wear certain clothes,” says Sephton, who is British born and goes by the moniker “The Real English Elaine. “I was in a place where I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t. When I see that person in an airport now, I’m so thankful I’m not that person anymore.”
Last year – after two suicide attempts six years apart – Sephton finally walked away from the job that brought her, he husband and her teenage daughter to the United States in 1998. Now she’s committing her life to doing the work she believes God has wanted her to do all along – using her people skills and her gift for gab to change the conversation around brain health and eliminate the stigma of living with a mental health condition.
“In April of 2021 I just sat there and said, ‘OK, God, if this is what you want me to do, I’m going to do it,” she says in a no-nonsense British accent punctuated by a frequent lilting laugh. “And it’s amazing how the doors have opened since.”
Sephton, who lives near Mt. Dora, Florida with her husband, Kevin, and service dog, Kiara, is currently in the process of finalizing the board for a new nonprofit which she hopes one day will provide residential support for people in central Florida recovering from a mental health crisis – the kind of place that was not available to her locally in the aftermath of her most recent suicide attempt. She’ll be using the coaching and training skills she once applied in the corporate world to instead reinforce the idea that caring for your brain, arguably the most essential organ in the body, is just as important as caring for your heart, lungs or kidneys.
It was a long and unpredictable road that led Sephton to where she is today. It began in Liverpool, England (“Home of the Beatles and – my husband would never forgive me if I didn’t says this -- the best soccer team in the world”), where Sephton, as the eldest of five children from a working class family, bore the brunt of her unemployed father’s alcoholism and violent abuse. The scholarship she earned to an all-girls Catholic school took her away from her less desirable neighborhood, but may also have been the catalyst for the feelings of “not being good enough, not worthy enough” that would plague her for the rest of her life.
When she was 16, her best friend “Angela” (after whom Sephton’s only child is named) died just after the two friends had spent an evening dancing together at a club. Angela, who’d asked Sephton to hang on to her bus money so she wouldn’t spend it, forgot to ask for it back. As Sephton walked to her home in the city center, Angela, without her fare, was denied boarding the bus. When she ran across the street to try to find Sephton, she was struck by a drunk driver and killed instantly.
“For the longest time, I blamed myself because she was crossing the road to get the money she’d given me to look after for her,” Sephton recalls. “It took 20 years before I was able to let that guilt go. So that clearly had a huge impact on me as a teenager.”
Determined to “not be like my father,” Sephton began college, but became pregnant before finishing school. After marrying her husband, she juggled the roles of young wife and new mother with a low level job at Royal Life Pensions. Within two years, she moved into a training role and returned to school to earn a professional certification in learning and development, the field she would work in for the rest of her career. Mental health was the furthest thing from her mind.
“I was just intent on doing well, being a good mother and wife,” she says. “When I look back, I’m sure I was under a lot of pressure, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I grew aware of the importance of your mind and the mental health side.”
She considered herself a “people person” and loved “being in the learning space” and sharing her knowledge to help others succeed. She continually took on larger projects, to the degree that when the U.S. division of the company was looking to replicate a project Sephton had led in England, she told her boss, “I could do that.” He agreed and Royal brought Sephton, her husband and their then 14-year-old daughter to Tampa, Florida on a three year contract. When the contract was up, the company agreed to sponsor Sephton’s green card so the family could stay in America, though they were required to move to the U.S. headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Sephton would spend the next 14 years in Charlotte, making friends, enjoying the community, and joining a nondenominational church where she and her husband were “saved” and their faith “grew exponentially.” When Royal decided to move her division back to England, she was able to get a job with its Latin America division, which allowed her to remain in Charlotte. But after only a year, that division was moved to Florida to be closer to the Latino community and when she was asked to move to Fort Lauderdale, she said no.
“We loved Charlotte, we loved our friends, our community, our church,” she says. “I’d worked for the company for 30 years and done everything they’d wanted, but it was time for me take a step of faith. I knew it would mean I would lose my job. And that was OK, though obviously, a big change.”
She took a job with a small boutique consulting firm in Charlotte that had just 12 employees and enjoyed its lower-key style, where agreements were based on handshakes over lunch. But after three years, the firm was acquired by Price Waterhouse Coopers, a “behemoth organization that had all these rules, processes and procedures.” Almost at once, her inner demons and insecurities started to attack.
“PWC is a very big brand to carry on your shoulders and it was a very difficult transition,” Sephton recalls. “I had the whole imposter syndrome – you know, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I can’t do this, this is not me. I would go into my boss’s office and cry and say, ‘I can’t do this. This is not for me.’”
He convinced her otherwise and indeed, she proved to be so good at her job that she was gradually assigned more and more responsibility, reducing her time with family and increasing her stress load to the point where “each morning I would have my head down the toilet and my husband would say, “Why are you doing this?”
“But I just felt that I had to,” she says. “I had to be in control. I had to earn money.”
After two years in that job, she applied for a position with PWC’s learning and development team to try to reduce her stress level. Then, in September of 2012 – just months after her daughter was married – she received a text saying her mother, had died in bed from a massive heart attack. After Sephton returned from the unexpected trip to England, she accepted the new position, feeling she could use her own experience of intimidation when joining the firm to help others just entering the company.
Inexplicably, in the summer of 2014 – for reasons she can’t readily identify now – she moved back into her former position in client services. With the move came an immediate return to her feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. They eventually became so crippling that her boss agreed to grant her a short leave from work. The leave would end up stretching to six months, during which time Sephton isolated from everyone but her husband, lost a great deal of weight and settled into “that deepest, darkest place.” Meanwhile, those in her Bible Belt church community began suggesting the problem was not in her head, but in a lack of faith.
“But I didn’t need to pray more, I needed to see a doctor,” Sephton insists. “And these same people that were telling me this were the same ones who were taking their diabetes medication without question.”
After consulting both a psychiatrist and a psychologist she was diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Instead of finding relief in the confirmation, she found fault with every medication her doctor prescribed, refusing to take them but ultimately stockpiling her own personal pharmacy of pills. In a book she would later write entitled “My Crazy Summer: God, Medication and Me,” Sephton detailed how the spiral led to her first suicide attempt.
“One day my husband and I went to a coffee shop and the barista said, ‘Hey what are you going to do today?’” Sephton recalls. “And in my head I said: ‘I’m going to kill myself.’”
The following Sunday after church, while her husband was at a soccer coach meeting, she sat down, cried, wrote a letter about “why I did it,” and tried to decide which piece of furniture it would be best for her husband to find her dead body on. Then she prepared to swallow her storehouse of pills. The ping of a text from her husband caused her to switch gears and hide all evidence of her attempt.
But the next morning, when she woke up and insisted she was going to carry out her plan, her husband took her, kicking and screaming, to an emergency room. From there she was transferred to an acute care facility for 10 days, where she was stabilized.
After her release, she heard a calling from God, urging her to go into mental health advocacy. At the time, she did her best to ignore it.
“I wasn’t ready, I didn’t want that label,” she says. “I was willing to be an advocate, but I was not going to raise the flag. The whole stigma thing. I didn’t want to live in shame, but I also didn’t want to be out in front of people as the poster child.”
In 2015, Sephton’s husband was offered a job in Orlando with a soccer organization and they left Charlotte for central Florida, where they moved into an upscale house on a lake and adopted a more profligate lifestyle. Feeling “recovered,” Sephton stopped seeing her doctors, rejoined PWC as a contract manager and jumped right back onto the corporate fray.
“I was like, ‘I’m well, I don’t need any more help,’” she says.
But in no time at all, the negative feelings resurfaced, now exacerbated by questions about the wisdom and point of their more extravagant lifestyle. Again she reached the point of saying, “I can’t do this anymore,” and this time she meant it. Sephton quit her job, she and her husband sold their home and she had her first inklings, at last, of a sense of peace.
“I thought, ‘This is great,’” she recalls. “But then I said, ‘Oh crap, what am I going to do now? I had no plan. And because I had no plan and no control, I spiraled down again.”
She took to her bed, only rousing herself for an hour to pull on some clothes lying on the floor when a friend insisted she go to lunch. Afterward, the clothes went back on the floor and she went back to bed. On a day when her husband was at work and she received a bill she feared they could not pay, she took all the antidepressants she’d stockpiled, then texted her husband to tell him what she’d done adding, “Don’t worry, don’t come home. I’m fine.”
Again she was rushed to the emergency room. From there, she was transferred to a residential facility where she would spend the next 75 days, followed by day treatment at an outpatient facility. Though stabilized, she still obsessed over what she was going to do with her life, how she would make an income. For a brief time, she became a driver for Ride Share, but after two separate experiences “when God showed me this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing,” she quit.
After she returned to her psychiatrist and, with the help of her current therapist, a plan began to take shape in her mind. In the year before her attempt, she’d trained as a Mental Health First Aid instructor -- someone who teaches lay people to recognize the signs of someone undergoing a mental health challenge and to respond appropriately. In January of 2021, with the Covid pandemic entering its second year, she began teaching remote Mental Health First Aid classes for a hospital in North Carolina. And found she liked it.
“I thought, I can do this, this isn’t too bad,” says Sephton, who also earned credentials as a certified life coach.
In April of last year, she “literally surrendered” to the call to make mental health advocacy her focus, saying, “OK God, if this is what you want me to do, I’m going to do it.”
“At first, I had no idea what that would look like or what I would do. But as soon as I decided, the doors started to open.”
She connected with a Mental Health First Aid coalition in Lake County that was teaching prevention practices in local high schools and started working with them. She started training to become a brain health educator. And she decided her new “job” would be to promote brain health, eliminate the stigma attached to a mental health diagnosis and change the mental health conversation and landscape.
One day last November, while driving down the road, she remembered the actor Robin Williams (who took his life in 2014 after suffering with Lewy body disease) and how, as a doctor in the movie “Patch Adams,” he’d decided to “screw the institution and create his own hospital.” She immediately began forming a board to oversee a nonprofit foundation she’s calling Rest & Renew, which she hopes will one day offer a non-institutional “ranch” where people coming out of a mental health crises can recuperate and recover.
She no longer worries about where the funds will come from or how she will be viewed for her advocacy.
“In the past I used to have a lot of money and now I don’t have much and that’s OK,” she says. “I’m in a place where I can’t do it on my own and I have to trust that people will come round. I think when you know what your purpose is and you have a passion, it will come through. When you’re on the right line things just start coming together.”
Her experience in the corporate world – creating project plans and communication strategies and bringing teams together – is proving helpful, particularly since her work is now her passion rather than her obligation. In fact, she admits, “it’s literally happening so fast I can barely keep up.”
“What’s changed is that I absolutely, 100 percent, know who I am and ‘whose’ I am,” she concludes, referring to her higher power. “Without a shadow of doubt I trust God as my provider. I absolutely, 100 percent have a passion and a purpose and a reason for living, which before I didn’t fully accept or embrace. People with mental conditions need help, just like I needed help. And the only way we can help is by changing the conversation and ending the stigma. It just takes more of us to stand up and speak out.”
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