Jim Grathwol keeps his eyes open for the stragglers. When he finishes a presentation of Ending the Silence, a free, 50-minute class for high school students created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that combines information about mental health conditions with first-person discussion led by a person with lived experience with mental illness, a few kids usually sidle up and start to talk.
“Every time we do this presentation there is at least one student who lingers, fiddling with their backpack or water bottle until they have the time to lean in and ask, ‘Is this me?’” said Grathwol, a parent peer educator for NAMI Minnesota.
The class includes information about early signs of mental illness and ways to find help. When he speaks to the students who linger after class, Grathwol said he makes a point to reiterate just how common mental illness is among young people, especially in the rocky post-COVID world they inhabit.
“It’s the water they swim in,” Grathwol said of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. “Does the goldfish even realize it is in the water? Adolescence is a time of anxiety and transition and growth. There has always been an element of that in a high school setting. Now it’s turned up to 11.”
NAMI Minnesota began offering Ending the Silence pre-COVID, but demand for the class is up as rates of mental illness among young people continue to rise.
The evidence is in the numbers. Renée Labat, NAMI Minnesota youth program coordinator, explained that more and more schools have requested that she and her team offer the presentation to their students during the 2022-23 school year. Donor funding makes the class available to schools across the state.
“Last fiscal year we taught 204 Ending the Silence classes to 9,043 students,” Labat said. “This school year, even though school has only been going for about a month and a half, we’ve already taught 64 classes to nearly 3,000 students.”
Word about the presentation has gotten out to other groups, added Sue Abderholden, NAMI Minnesota executive director. “We have had groups like churches, faith communities, Scouts, other youth groups like sports teams who have reached out and want us to provide Ending the Silence for them,” Abderholden said. “The message the program gives is so valuable: We want to make it available to as many young people as possible.”
Normalizing mental illness
As a health science teacher at Hopkins High School, Marit Lee-Dohse has a deep understanding of the mental health struggles of adolescents.
“I have 30 students in a class, so there are quite a few who struggle with mental health issues,” she said. Over the course of her 25-year teaching career, Lee-Dohse has seen a number of presentations about mental health for teens, but she was looking for something different. She said she found NAMI Minnesota and Ending the Silence through an internet search.
After talking to Labat and seeing a presentation for herself, Lee-Dohse was sold. “They do such a good job going through the warning signs for mental illness, what you can do if you see the warning signs in yourself or in a friend,” she said.
For Lee-Dohse and her colleagues at Hopkins, the topic feels relevant, especially now. “We are really fortunate that NAMI takes the time to come in and present,” she said. “Our kids walk away with information they can really use and put into practice. Whether it is talking with other people or having a number they can call, it really is incredibly valuable.”
One part of the Ending the Silence presentation that feels particularly useful, educators say, is the fact that the curriculum focuses on normalizing mental illness and breaking down discrimination against people who struggle with mental health conditions.
Maribel Arellano, a wellness and physical education teacher at Apple Valley High School, has been inviting the NAMI Minnesota team into her classroom for nearly two years, ever since Labat reached out to tell her about the program. She said the straight-forward, honest way the presentation addresses mental health, combined with first-person anecdotes from people who have recovered from mental illness, helps to break down any stereotypes her students might hold.
Having Labat and her colleagues come into her class, Arellano said, “helps open the door. We all deal with mental health. We all have a brain. That’s our mental health. It is a great educational, foundational experience for my students.”
The program’s emphasis on speaking up about mental health concerns is key, Lee-Dohse said. Too often young people suffer in silence, and this class encourages them to share their worries. “She spends time talking about the stigma that goes on with mental illness,” Lee-Dohse said of Labat. “If students can feel like this is something that tother people go through, it is something where I am not alone, they realize, ‘I can share this.’ And that’s so important.”
When COVID took hold of Minnesota, Labat and her NAMI colleagues felt it was particularly important to connect with high school teachers around the state and let them know that this option existed.
The more young people who see programs like Ending the Silence the better, Abderholden said. She sees interest in this program as evidence of a growing understanding of mental illness and the many people it affects. Young people, the very students who see the presentation, are leading this change, she believes.
“I see in the clubs that have formed in high schools around mental illness that there is such great awareness of mental health among young people, more than there was in my generation,” Abderholden said. “I think that by providing some additional information through Ending the Silence we are able to help them be able to talk about it.”
The ‘superpower’ of stories
The one element of the program that is particularly impactful is the fact that Ending the Silence presenters have all experienced mental illness themselves or with a loved one. It helps build credibility with the young audience the program serves.
Labat, who lives with depression, tells students about how she got help from a trusted adult. “I talk about going to my aunt for help when I needed it,” she said. “After having that conversation it made it easier to talk to other people.”
Grathwol explained that the class is, “very near and dear to my heart,” because his young adult children both were diagnosed with mental illness when they were in late high school and early college. Because he didn’t know much about the common warning signs of mental illness, Grathwol said it took time to understand what was happening to his children. He became an Ending the Silence presenter because he wanted other people to understand more about mental illness and the fact that people can recover from it.
The perspective of people with first-hand experience is key to Ending the Silence’s success, Abderholden said. “The lived experience is important to helping young people see, ‘This is an adult who has had the same experience as me.’ It gives them hope to see that these are people who have lived through mental illness and are doing well.”
The approach works with students, Grathwol added. “They lean in. They are engaged. When I go through the symptoms that my kids experienced, when you tell someone’s personal story, that’s our superpower.”