Published at Times Publishing Newspapers, Inc.
Ask a room full of students to raise their hands if they or someone they know has experienced a mental illness, and almost every one of them will raise a hand.
This is one thing the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Bucks County asks during its “Ending the Silence” (ETS) presentations at high schools and middle schools.
Mental illness affects one in four adults any given year in the U.S. and one in five children between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a mental health condition, according to NAMI.
Mental illnesses are invisible and many people suffer in silence due to the stigma of admitting to a mental disorder – a stigma that’s reinforced through harmful behaviors such as stereotyping, labeling and bullying.
Kids often suffer alone, thinking they have nowhere to turn.
“That fear of asking for help is what leads to suicide,” said Laurie Pepe, coordinator of Bucks County’s chapter of NAMI, addressing the audience at Richboro Middle School in February. “Reaching out can save your life, and the lives of those around you.”
NAMI journeys around Bucks County to spread its message through young adult speakers who have firsthand experience with mental illness, leaving kids with the feeling that it’s important to speak up when they aren’t feeling well.
“It’s okay to not be okay,” said Nick Emeigh, a speaker for the Richboro middle-schoolers.
Nick struggled alone with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation for years before finally seeking help. The loss of his parents and grandparents made him feel isolated, that he had no one to turn to.
“You aren’t alone with these feelings, and you’re capable of overcoming them,” Nick told the students.
Laurie and her ETS team consisting of Nick, Vicki Hellerick, and Rohan Sharma spread their stories in hopes of inspiring others to reach out and break the silence.
Rohan was in medical school when his Bipolar Type 1 disorder caused him to have a manic episode, landing him in jail.
“My symptoms began when I was about your age – 14 in seventh grade,” Rohan said to the middle school audience.
“My mood became very unstable and kids would tease me because my eyes would water for no reason at all. I would get overwhelming waves of sadness I couldn’t control, but I didn’t speak up and didn’t seek help.”
Bipolar is more than a mood disorder – it’s a mental illness. Left untreated, it can have very serious side affects, which is something Rohan speaks to.
Now, he leaves kids with this message – “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, recovery is possible.”
Rohan asks the kids to pledge to take mental health issues seriously, seek help, speak out, and help end the stigma.
ETS leaves kids with a message that it’s okay to be different from others and to feel different. It’s okay to be who you are and to experience the things you do.
“All the stuff that makes you different – not just different from the person sitting next to you but different from anyone in this room – they are your superpowers,” said Nick. “When you take those differences and embrace them, you become strong.”
Amanda Allan, an eighth grader from Churchville, sat in the audience at Richboro Middle School and expressed the impact the ETS presentation had on her, and that from now on she will “be more careful in what I say to those around me.”
At the end of the presentation, the NAMI team asks the students to fill out a participant evaluation.
Nicole “Nicki” Salome is a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Richboro Middle School who has taken her classes to see the ETS presentation four times.
“One of my students asked me if he was going to die because he feels despair when the seasons change,” Nicki said. “After this presentation, I saw all the anxiety leave his face. He seemed to know it was okay to let someone know how he was feeling, and that he wasn’t alone.
“If you reach one kid, it’s worth it. You can make a difference.”
Another teacher, Michael Kochler, attended the presentation with his eighth grade health class.
“You look around at their faces and think, it could just be a mask, but how do you get past that mask?” Michael said. “These presentations spawn conversations in the classroom (around difficult subjects). I don’t want these things to happen to them, and I hope leaving them with a positive message will make an impact.”
To learn more about how you can get involved or about the ETS program, visit NAMIBucksPA.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, reach out and share this resource – a 24-hour helpline for those who feel they have nowhere else to turn: 1-866-399-NAMI.