By Ben Gregson/Matters of the Mind
Adam Fuchs said talking to others about his own mental illness helped transform him from a victim into the “hero of my own story.”
After what he said was his fifth suicide attempt, Fuchs – at the time of this writing an 18-year-old high school junior in upstate New York – said he went to a residential treatment center for two years when he was 13. There, he learned that mental illness did not define him. He also learned healthy coping strategies, including biking. And now he shares his story with middle and other high school students.
“Now I’m the hero of my own story, and not a victim of mental illness,” Fuchs said. “And I have hopes and dreams, which is something that a few years ago was not even up for discussion, because I doubted I would make it through the next 24 hours alive.”
This change in outlook is the goal of Ending the Silence, an education and support program for middle and high school students developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an educational and advocacy center. It encourages people who live with mental illness to tell their own stories, sharing the realities, difficulties and emotions.
The program’s materials focus on empathy and hope, and Ending the Silence works to combat the stigma that traditionally accompanies mental illness.The stigma “puts a shadow” on seeking treatment and help with mental illness.
“If it were any other illness, you’d know exactly where to go,” said Julianne Grothe, youth program coordinator at NAMI Montgomery County, Maryland.
To hear more of Grothe’s thoughts on social stigma and mental health in the United States, listen to the audio clip below.
Ending the Silence is still fairly new — it was developed in November 2013 by NAMI DuPage County, Illinois, and NAMI Montgomery County (Maryland) is an early adopter. Grothe has been organizing Ending the Silence school presentations in the county since last January, and she worked with the program as an intern for four months before that. She has also been a presenter.
Classroom and other presentations begin with the family member of any individual who is diagnosed with a mental illness, usually a parent, educating the audience on early warning signs and its silent prevalence. The slide show is peppered with the family member’s personal anecdotes about living with an individual diagnosed with mental illness Grothe said.
Following the slideshow comes the main act: the presenter, who Grothe referred to as “the star of the show.” According to Grothe, presenters share brief personal stories, from the moment they recognizing having a mental illness to where they are now.
The last part of the presentation is an audience evaluation. Here, Grothe said, audience members tell NAMI how the presentation affected them by leaving anonymous comments on a survey.
‘The Star of the Show’
Who becomes a presenter for Ending the Silence? Fuchs, a presenter for NAMI programs for two months, is finishing high school and loves his bike exercise. Leilani Fryauff, 29, a presenter for two years, works and cares for her six-year-old daughter and works at Home Depot. Elissa Orescan, an intern at NAMI and a new presenter, studies behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland and loves to dance.
As these descriptions show, they are like anybody else. And they’ve not only had personal experience with mental illness – they’ve also had to navigate the mental health care system.
Ending the Silence not only educates its audience, but presenters turn to the program for support as well. In the back of the NAMI Montgomery County program offices, sunlight washed over Fryauff as she looked out the window, towards the train track next door. A bird chirped in the spring afternoon as her voice choked on the past stories of seeking help.
“NAMI really helps facilitate [trust] by having programs like Family to Family, Ending the Silence, Peer to Peer,” Fryauff said, “because those programs put people with extraordinary circumstances, [and] in similar situations, in the same place at the same time. So they can talk; they can share; they can not feel so estranged.”
To hear Fryauff talk about how she feels after giving an Ending the Silence presentation, listen to the audio clip below.
Other presenters say they share their story because they did not receive the same help. “What drew me to the Ending the Silence program was, specifically, the chance to tell my story, and to sort of make it feel less taboo to talk about,” said Orescan.
Fuchs and Fryauff say they were first introduced to NAMI and subsequently became involved with Ending the Silence, because of their parents. Grothe says it is common for new speakers to become aware of the Silence program due to one of NAMI’s other programs, Family to Family, which seeks to educate parents on identifying the warning signs of mental illness.
Grothe believes that few presenters come to her without outside encouragement. That’s because of traditional obstacles to mental health treatment: social stigma, ignorance of the condition or conflicting symptoms.
The personal approach is one way that NAMI’s programs stand out, even among mental health advocacy programs. NAMI insiders say the organization doesn’t disseminate information to policy makers or other advocates; they communicate directly with people.
To hear Grothe tell the story of how she fell in love with NAMI and mental health advocacy, listen to the audio below.
Ending the Silence is still in its infancy, but the speakers hope that they can help more people.
“For a very long time, I was living in fear of other people knowing about [my mental illness], and now I feel like I want to make it known and get rid of the whole stigma against it, and no longer make it taboo,” Orescan said.