In 1990 at the age 16, Janet Susin's son developed a mental illness. In response, the then Nassau County middle school teacher wanted to convey to his friends what he was going through. She approached the school's health teacher and found out that mental health was not among the topics covered in the study and maintenance of our biological health. Finding the teacher open to some education on the subject, Ms. Susin helped put together a lesson plan with the teacher. "That was the genesis of our project," she says in reference to "Breaking the Silence," a curriculum that enablesschools to better familiarize students with the reality of mental illness.
18 years later, as part of The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Nassau County, she finds that students have moved ahead of the learning curve, and the type of silence she gets from them when going out and lecturing is more of a good thing. Starting by asking students if they know anyone who's had a mental illness, she says, "There isn't the kind of giggling and turning around to see whose raising their hand."
Aside from whatever impact her efforts have had, the climate today has softened with all the celebrities who've gone public on their problems. Additionally, as it has also entered the popular culture, the kids find it easier to follow suit. For instance, if you go to the "Monk" website, she says, "You'll find all the kids that are self identifying with having OCD and posting their pictures."
Nonetheless, BTS aspires to mainstream the discussion where it matters most - in the classroom and their everyday lives. "You're taking it out of the closet and you're treating it like the other illnesses that are part of the health curriculum," she says.
And with suicide being the 3rd leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 24, BTS can't rest on the societal gains that have been reached in sensitivity levels. Lesson plans prompt the most important question of the day. "Are these the normal ups and downs of adolescence or a mental illness," she says they ask.
Elementary school age to high school, students are presented with difference situations and they discuss thesigns. Depressive and anxiety related symptoms are cause for real concern, she says, if they persist over a long period of time or one's ability to function becomes dramatically impaired.
Of course, it's made clear that a doctor can only make the diagnosis, but friends are in a crucial position to take note of the telling signs and make a difference. Encourage them to get treatment, she says, or encourage people in the classroom to speak to somebody in the school about their concerns.
But Breaking the Silence mostly let's its materials to the talking because they can't clone themselves to be everywhere, she says. Moreover, appearing too often as special occasion speakers operates in contrast to what they are trying to accomplish. "We want our subject to be treated like any other subject and you don't always have to have a speaker represent that illness in order to be able to teach about it," she says.
Still, BTS does get itself out there in the field to get a general feel for where kids are with the subject, but the objective does not really get into the specifics of psychoanalysis or medication. Referring to one of their elementary school posters, which pictures a brain, an ice pack and a band aid, she feels it sums up the therapeutic process as far as it needs to be for their purposes. "Brains get sick but with treatment they can get better," she relayed its message.
Of course, being educated doesn't always mean children - or adults - can put the lesson plan into practice especially when science has a long enough way to go toward complete understanding of mental illness. That's the hard part, she concludes.
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Originally published at http://www.educationupdate.com/archives/2009/SEP/assets/EdUpdate_Sep09.pdf