Let’s Talk About Mental Health—At SchoolAugust 30, 2021
By Erin Raftery Ryan
Erin Raftery Ryan is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Westside Los Angeles (NAMI Westside LA), which provides mental health support, guidance and resources for families and educators in Los Angeles. The Lowell Milken Family Foundation recently partnered with NAMI Westside LA on a $1.2 million gift to support the organization’s programs.
“You’re on mute,” a sixth-grader kindly informed me during a recent Zoom presentation. While this phrase has become part of our new virtual vocabulary, in this particular instance I found it quite ironic. I was giving one of our “Ending The Silence” presentations about mental health—a topic that has been on mute for far too long.
At NAMI WLA, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we strive to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health through education. Ending The Silence (ETS) is a program for middle and high schools developed by NAMI for three separate audiences—students, faculty/administration, and parents—to help end the shame, stigma and silence that often surround the topic of mental health. Each presentation sheds light on various aspects of mental health conditions, including why mental health is as important as physical health and how to recognize the warning signs of a condition in yourself or others. We make sure students know where they can turn in times of crisis, and offer strategies to adults for how best to support their students in and out of the classroom.
ETS sessions, which run about 50 minutes, are delivered by two trained presenters. The lead presenter is usually a family member who has a loved one with a mental health diagnosis. The other is a young adult living with a mental health condition. It’s this last part of the presentation that always resonates deeply with students, as they watch someone with lived experience demystify the process of coping gracefully with mental health challenges. “This program helped me understand a lot better about mental illness—now I could help people around me if it happens around me,” one 10th-grader told us. And from a seventh-grader: “It gave me more information about the mental health problems I’m dealing with myself.”
One of the students' favorite parts of the presentation is when we talk about positive coping strategies. They always love having the opportunity to talk about the wide range of things they do to take care of their mental health, from hanging out with their friends and listening to music, to playing with their pets or cooking with their parents. My own coping strategies include spending time with my family, getting exercise and being outdoors—an evening walk with our dog resets me both mentally and physically.
The Q&A portion is always our favorite part, because we get to talk about mental health with students in real time. One of the most common questions they ask: “Won't my friend feel betrayed if I tell a teacher I'm concerned about them?” (This often relates to self-harm and/or suicidal ideation.) We explain that the price of silence is too high, and that sometimes you may need to risk your friendship in order to save your friend. It’s always most effective when our young presenters give examples from their own lives about how their friends have stepped up for them during their most challenging times.
While ETS was originally designed to be delivered in person, our experience offering it virtually during the pandemic has been very impactful. We gave over 175 ETS virtual presentations during the 2020-21 school year, and we already have dozens lined up for this coming year. The students who’ve heard these presentations have adapted easily to the online format, and have been responding with a high level of interest and engagement. Our Zoom chat box is always buzzing throughout the presentations, and as I have learned, students do not hesitate to tell you if you’re on mute!
This past year and a half has been a challenge for everyone, and the pandemic’s collective impact on mental health is still widely uncovered. Perhaps this crisis has given us an opportunity as a community to grow a greater awareness and empathy for all of our mental health. I’m grateful we have a program that supports our schools to help shed light on this vital topic and support those who need it the most. Let’s end the silence and start the conversation.
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