Breaking the silence

School program shatters mental illness stigmas, empowers students

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Mental illness is a leech. It attaches itself without invitation and sucks hopes dry. It's dark, scary and lasting. To remove it, the leech much be touched. It's difficult for the host to know how to begin to rid of it. To hide with it in fear, confusion and shame is unfortunately the path most taken.

Meanwhile, those not infected often don't want the leech near them — it's too icky to touch and they wouldn't know what to do with it even if they could summon the needed courage and compassion.

Desiree Woodland, a mother and longtime teacher in Albuquerque, has seen the leech up close and personal. She lost her son to suicide when he was 24. In an effort to prevent other families and young people from suffering the same fate, Woodland began presenting lessons on mental illness in Duke City classrooms.

In a talk to the mayor and the city of Albuquerque in 2013, she shared, "... My heart breaks open to realize that I was ill-equipped — he was ill-equipped — to understand mental illness. After he died, I began to educate myself and saw the great need to educate youth to make it okay to talk about something that had been hushed up, covered over with shame as if it was the fault of the person who had mental illness. It is not a moral weakness or a character flaw but an illness. ... I have endeavored to be his voice because he didn't have one, to speak up and give youth the language to engage in dialogue, and remove the shame from mental illness."

In 2012, Executive Director Michele Herling of Compassionate Touch Network (CTN) met with Woodland. They spoke at length about the need for mental health education in the classrooms. In 2013, they brought their shared vision to consummation and Breaking the Silence/New Mexico became a key program of CTN. Incorporated in July 2011, CTN is a New Mexico-based nonprofit organization that promotes mental health literacy for youth, teens and adults through education and the arts.Trained facilitator and certified peer support worker Brenda Steele introduced Taos to Breaking the Silence in the fall of 2016. After completing her training in Albuquerque, Steele became the program's Northern New Mexico coordinator.

"We love the work that Brenda is doing in Taos," commented Barbara Bruce,
Breaking the Silence/New Mexico program director. "She is making a wonderful impact in the area."

The following are Steele's answers to our questions about the program and her involvement.

How does the program work?

Breaking the Silence is an interactive presentation broken into two parts. In the first part, students watch a 45-minute video with four real students who live with metal illness, discussing how they discovered that they were dealing with something outside of the ordinary challenges of puberty and being a teenager. They discuss the onset of their illness, seeking treatment and what types of things helped them in their healing process.

In the second part of the presentation, the students participate in an interactive slide show where we discuss the idea that mental illness is a physical illness of the brain, and like any other illness (cancer, asthma, etc.) when the body gets sick, we need to seek professional treatment as early as possible. There is no shame in getting help. We dig deeper into this idea of shame around mental illness and why it is often treated differently than other illnesses of the body. We define stereotypes and stigma as they relate to mental illness, and discuss the ways in which they can actively break down the walls that keep individuals from seeking the help they need.

How often do you do presentations and for which grades?

Presentations occur at all different times and depend upon the individual teacher's schedule. We ideally teach in health classes, due to the fact that the curriculum is state certified to cover the topic of mental illness. We primarily teach in 7th grade and 9th grade health classes, but are happy to come to any classroom where a teacher and students show interest (between 7th-12th grades). Again, the goal of this program is to increase basic awareness and understanding of mental illnesses and the stigma associated, so that we can support our young people and provide services long before they are in a crisis situation.

The presentation is very hands on, with a good deal of student participation in multiple activities. Our favorite is an exercise that teaches tools for stress reduction, and shows students the power of friendship and support to reduce harm.

Last semester, we taught over 220 students at three different schools (Taos High, Taos Middle School, and Anansi Charter), as well as a group of students at Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. This semester we will be expanding to also teach at Vista Grande and TISA.

What are the most common stigmas about mental illness that you hear?

We cover this topic extensively during the presentation, and really encourage the students to dig in, and think about where the negative ideas we have about people with mental illnesses come from. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, but normally the students are hip to it right away —"social media!" They say, "movies, TV, the news." They get it, but we also remind them that these negative stereotypes can come from places a lot closer to our hearts ... family, friends, classmates.

We then ask them to share some of the negative stereotypes they hear. All people with mental illnesses are "crazy, psycho, dangerous ..." the list goes on and on.

We go on to explain why these stigmas are so dangerous, and the reason is that stigma keeps people from seeking help. The longer an individual suffering waits to seek help, the worse their condition is likely to become. If we stop the shame, people are more inclined to get help, and the earlier they get help, the less likely they are to seek drastic means to eliminate their suffering later down the line.

What are some typical reactions associated with mental illness that you have seen in the community?

Shame, fear, anxiety, misunderstanding to name a few.

What happened in your life that drove you to coordinate and facilitate this program in Taos?

I have been living diagnosed with bipolar disorder since I was 15 years old. I hid my condition from everyone my whole life up until a couple of years ago. I never told anyone besides my doctor that I had felt suicidal before, that I had been hospitalized and medicated. I hid a huge part of my life from employers, friends, boyfriends, teachers and even from myself at many points. As I got older, I realized that I didn't want to hide anymore; and as I learned to better love and care for myself, I also found that I had a strong desire to be of greater service to people like myself, who had suffered so much alone.

In trying to imagine how I might be of service to others like me, I realized that I could never even begin to help anyone else escape the shame and stigma of a mental disorder if I didn't help myself first. So, a couple of years ago I decided to stop hiding my condition. It was a bigger deal for me than I thought it would be — telling employers and old friends that didn't know. I was afraid they would judge me, that some might even be openly afraid of me. I chose to be brave on this issue for the first time in my life, and it has paid off 100 percent and then some. From that point forward, I have spoken openly with everyone I work with and for, as well as all of the people I hold close to my heart.

My illness is still a full-time job in its own right that requires an enormous amount of hard work and self-care, but shame and hiding are not part of that work load anymore, and I can't begin to tell you how much weight that has taken off my shoulders.

Part of the reason I am doing the work I do now with Breaking the Silence is because it is important to me that we speak openly and truthfully about mental illness, that includes my own. I love the work we do. Stigma busters!

I don't share too many details about my personal story or condition with students in the classroom because that's not what the program is about, but I do always let the students know that I have a mental illness and am trained as a peer support worker. This is very important to me. I always tell them, "I share my condition out loud with you today because no one ever did that for me when I was your age (many of the students I teach are the exact same age I was when I discovered I was bipolar), and it left me feeling terribly lonely and isolated. Not until I was an adult did anyone ever openly divulge to me that they were living with a mental illness. And even then, there was so much shame. I want things to be different for you all growing up today — and I really believe it can be."

Who can be a facilitator?

Facilitators for Breaking the Silence come from all walks of life. The only requirement to be a facilitator is a passion and commitment to breaking stigma. Facilitators are trained and work as co-facilitators before becoming lead facilitators. Some facilitators work professionally in the mental health field, some are family members affected by illness within their families and some are people living with mental illnesses. In recent years, the organization has begun to train youth facilitators to help teach the classes as well.

How are students responding to program? At first, do they seem uncomfortable or nervously laugh or are they deathly silent? And by the end, do you see, hear any epiphanies?

From the beginning I was pleasantly surprised by how positively students have responded to this program. They really get it, almost right off the bat. They often connect the dots so quickly, and can see why this matters and how they can play a roll in making things different. They have the power to remove the stigma and shame around mental illness in our community, and I always try to remind them that they do.

Have you personally witnessed positive results?

I really have. Sometimes I get an instant response, where a student will express appreciation for what we are doing at their school immediately. But, we have also noted good conversations going on in the classroom in the days and weeks after we leave. The teachers we work with really care about this topic, that is why they invite us in to present in the first place. They understand and support openness around mental health and wellness.

What are the program's long-term goals?

Our long-term ideal goal for the Taos community is that every student would get a change to experience this presentation. Whether they personally experience a mental health challenge or not, at some point they will likely know and care about someone who does. One in five individuals will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. The odds are that mental illnesses will impact us all personally at some point. We want students to be well informed with access to local organizations and information, so that if they, or someone they care about is in crisis, they know what to do and don't have to handle it alone.

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