November 21, 2016

By Happy Carlock

Amy Ellis Nutt, left, and Ryann Tanap at the Washington Post offices
                                   Liz Norton teaching Ending the Silence


Imagine a classroom of sixth graders.

Rarely will your mind paint a tranquil picture. Instead, you probably see restless bodies squirming in their seats and hear voices abruptly chime into the conversation, competing to be heard.

This Thanksgiving season, we at NAMI are thankful for those unexpected interruptions—the moments of impulse that drive youth and young adults to speak up, especially when it comes to mental health issues. Especially because one in five children suffers from a mental health or learning disorder, and 80% of chronic mental disorders begin in childhood.

When NAMI Program Manager Jennifer Rothman taught Ending the Silence classes in North Carolina middle schools, it wasn't uncommon for a student to blurt out: “My dad has depression!”

“It’s neat to see that,” Rothman said. “Middle schoolers are so quick to talk about what they’re going through. We need to take that, harbor it and help it continue into high school.”

We’re seeing a nationwide paradigm shift in how youth and young adults understand, talk about and respond to mental health conditions. And NAMI is at the forefront of this movement.

Ending the Silence

NAMI’s Ending the Silence program is providing a template for youth and young adults in 33 states to recognize and respond to mental health conditions. The course was created by Brenda and Brian Hilligoss with NAMI DuPage County, Illinois in 2007. NAMI DuPage gifted the program to NAMI’s national office in May 2013 so it could be expanded across the country and fill a gap in services to youth. This year, NAMI affiliates across the country have given 269 presentations reaching 11,538 youth.

The free, 50-minute classroom presentation gives students an overview of mental health conditions; warning signs; and when, where, and how to get help. Ending the Silence is taught by a young adult who has lived with mental illness and a family member.

Across the board, students report on their course evaluation form that the most impactful part of the presentation is the young adult portion. Volunteers with lived experience always begin that portion by talking about themselves: their jobs, hobbies and personal interests. Then they go into their experiences with mental illness.

This model—starting with the person behind the condition, and then weaving their story of mental illness into the greater narrative of their life—is setting a new precedent for how our next generation understands mental health.

Typically, when middle and high school students first encounter a mental health condition, they see it as their best friend who hasn’t seemed like herself recently, as the goalie on their soccer team who hasn’t had the energy to show up for practice, as the boy in their history class who hasn’t participated in class discussion in weeks.

During the Q&A portion of the course, one of the most common questions teachers receive is: “What if my friend gets mad at me for telling someone?” Ending the Silence gives students the courage and tools to reach out when they see signs of mental illness in their peers, or to get help when a friend confides in them.

NAMI Senior Systems Manager Liz Norton teaches Ending the Silence in Northern Virginia schools. She has seen first-hand the way the class normalizes mental illness for young people. And in some cases, she has seen it save lives.

One girl contacted her weeks after a presentation and shared that she had a friend who was suicidal. After taking Ending the Silence, she saw the signs and said something, remembering one vital point from the course: “If your friend is suicidal you should say something because even though they might be mad, you’re saving their life.”

At NAMI, we’re grateful for the growing awareness and openness about mental health among youth and young adults—and the role that Ending the Silence is playing in fostering that growth.

Want to bring Ending the Silence to your school, youth group or organization? Contact your local NAMI or learn more here.

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