Another useful program for raising mental health awareness in schools is sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and is called Ending the Silence. This program, given by trained volunteers, can be offered to an audience of any size and is without charge. Through a special grant, it has been implemented as early as eighth grade in some school districts, and can be used throughout high school. The format is this: two persons will address a group of students. One of them is a young adult in their twenties or early thirties who lives with a mental illness while the second person is an adult family member (probably a parent or brother/sister) of someone who does. Each takes their turn speaking and tells directly about what they have learned through facing the challenges this has brought into their lives. They talk about symptoms, how they first became aware of the illness, and then what has helped them, how they have been able to deal with this effectively over a period of years. After both have presented, time is allowed for questions from the audience so that people can ask for clarification, advice, or make comments based on what they heard.
This model of sharing from one’s own direct experience can be very powerful for those listening, whether they are teens or parents. It tends to break down the usual barriers, as topics that have barely been spoken about even in private suddenly come out into the open in a calm, thoughtful way. One young adult presenter from New Jersey says she will never forget when, after her talk, a mother told her, “What you just described about yourself as a child—that’s my daughter.”* It made the young woman feel so good to be able to reassure the worried mother that there is life after a mental health diagnosis like severe depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar, or schizophrenia. The young woman could tell her, “I’ve been there, and I’m OK now.” As Janet Haag writes about the NAMI Mercer Ending the Silence school project, “Young people need role models close to their own age who can help them feel safe being exactly who they are—claiming their own experiences and living their own lives fully, even with mental health challenges.”
More teens need this guidance from others like themselves who are a bit further along the road they will be traveling, too. They realize they aren’t as alone as they may have thought. They start to learn new vocabulary, coping strategies, new ways of looking at what is going on for them. Of crucial importance, they learn about pathways to get the help they need. This process can truly be transformational for persons affected, as well as for their families and friends.
Quotes are from the “Ending the Silence” article in NAMI’s magazine, The Advocate, Spring 2019 pp. 6-7. For more on what NAMI offers see their website: www.nami.org