Megan Gallagher remembers her first major panic attack vividly. It was a month into ninth grade, and her English class was discussing Homer’s “Odyssey” when Gallagher felt a pit in her stomach. Her heart rate was elevated, and she felt sweaty and dizzy.

“I clutched my desk. The room started to spin in circles,” Gallagher said. “I went to the bathroom and sat alone in a stall, breathing.”

Now a 23-year-old Santa Monica resident, Gallagher is an inspirational speaker for young adults in Santa Monica and around the United States. Over the past three years, Gallagher estimates she has spoken at over 50 schools and with countless students about mental health.

Gallagher expressed concern about the roughly one third of young adults who have experienced anxiety, as reported by the National Institute of Mental Health. Stanford University’s Challenge Success program, which collects information from thousands of student surveys, found that almost three in four high schoolers “report being often or always stressed by schoolwork.”

To Gallagher, letting students know that there are resources and support systems available is vital.

“You’re not alone, and you can get help,” Gallagher said. “A lot of teenagers feel like [mental health issues are] embarrassing or they don’t know who to ask or who to trust.”

Given her personal struggles with anxiety, Gallagher sees advocacy as her life’s work. She remembers first feeling symptoms of anxiety as early as fourth grade while preparing for regular activities like sleepovers.

The frequency of these symptoms dramatically increased as Gallagher became exposed to high school pressure surrounding grades and college admissions. While in high school, Gallagher began seeing a therapist, practiced meditation and learned breathing techniques, all of which she said were helpful.

Upon graduating from Acalanes High School in Northern California in 2014, Gallagher enrolled in Santa Monica City College, where she found herself feeling unhappy. In early 2016, she experienced a health scare. Months of misdiagnoses and dozens of ineffective antibiotics later, she was able to find a treatment that worked.

Viewing her recovery as a signal that she should follow her gut instinct to pursue a career in speaking, Gallagher decided to drop out of college. Her parents supported her in this decision.

“She felt very compelled that she wanted to help others,” Gallagher’s mother, Courtney Gallagher, said. “I’m a huge believer that there’s a million different path for children and adults… They have to find their path. It’s not something that’s going to happen in one week; it’s a journey.”

Megan Gallagher began by speaking locally at the YMCA on Sixth Street and the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica on Lincoln Boulevard.

Three years later, Gallagher is a self-published author, advocate and, as of March 8, a TEDx Speaker.

“It’s been such a dream. It really just started with ‘this feels right in my heart,’ and then trusting the journey,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher lacks formal mental health counseling training, instead relying on personal experience and a desire to help students. She said she hopes to show others that achieving one’s dreams, even if that means pursuing a non-traditional lane, is possible.

Today, Gallagher’s days consist of self-care routines, including meditating, hiking, reading and, of course, speaking. To other teens experiencing anxiety, she recommends journaling, meditation apps like Headspace or Unplug and exercise.

Looking forward, Gallagher’s goal is to spread her messages to even more people, hoping to achieve a Tony Robbins-like level of recognition.

Gallagher recently visited Piedmont High School, located near Acalanes High. Her parents and members of her extended family came to support her as she spoke to around 50 Piedmont students about anxiety, mental health and inner strength during a lunchtime workshop.

“Be your own advocate, and stand up for yourself,” Gallagher said she told the students. “You have to fill up your cup before you fill up other people’s cups.”

Erin Pope, assistant principal at Piedmont High, said that Gallagher’s young age and empowering message resonated with the students to whom she spoke. Gallagher used interactive tools like having students write a journal entry to connect with her audience. Pope said she hopes Gallagher can visit Piedmont again.

“Her message was trust your gut, self-respect, self-advocacy, find your passion, live your best life and make it happen,” Pope said. “She’s able to give [students] some hope that, ‘oh, there’s someone out there like me.’”

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