His last name says it all for those wondering whether having a mental health disorder means a permanent detour from living a "normal" life.

Participating in a panel discussion on child mental health for New Jersey 101.5FM, Wayne resident John Champion shared his own story of spotting signs of depression in high school and seeking professional help while in college.

Nearly a decade and a half later, Champion is married with a child, one step away from achieving his goal of saving the lives of others dealing with mental illness.

"I was ready to just end it all, and wound up seeking help, and it saved my life," Champion said during the hour-long program Thursday evening. "Life was better in the moment, as soon as I sought help."

Champion's story supported claims made all week by mental health experts that recognizing signs of a potential mental illness is key to limiting its impact, as long as treatment — whether it be therapy, medication or a combination — is part of the game plan afterwards.

Champion first realized he might be dealing with an issue in high school, when a checklist handed out during an assembly on depression was describing his symptoms word for word.

"Taking that first step to get help, I think, is the hardest part," Champion said after the program. "Just having somebody that is not going to be judgmental, who's heard it before and can offer you good insight, really can make a world of difference."

Champion hit his lowest point while in college. His girlfriend had left him, his parents were separating, and his grades were falling. One rainy night while in bed, Champion decided he "couldn't go on anymore."

"I was finally comfortable with the fact that the pain was going to be over," Champion said.

But he had promised his therapist he'd get in touch if such a situation should arise. He sent an email, and soon his mother and aunt came to his school to bring him back home.

Champion took a leave of absence from college, so he could receive partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient care for several weeks. Therapy, in a number of forms, was the approach that fit Champion's needs.

"You can overcome it," Champion said. "If you want to get yourself feeling better, there's options out there."

Champion's bout with depression, however, is not completely in the past. As recently as two years ago, while married, he slipped back into a dark place mentally, miserable with his job and frequently skipping work to stay in bed.

Professional help worked again, and Champion decided it was time to switch gears so he could be a productive father should he and his wife have a child.

With an advanced counseling degree from Montclair State University, Champion hopes to sit for a licensing exam in October.

"Once I pass the exam, God willing, I either want to work in a hospital or a group practice and be a therapist, and ultimately the goal would be to have a private practice," he said.

After living in Montclair for a year, Champion and his wife purchased a home in Wayne. They welcomed their first child four months ago.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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