National Alliance on Mental Illness
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By Janet Susin, Chair, NAMI Queens/Nassau Education Committee


"There is a deafening silence about mental illness in our schools today." Those are the words that the NAMI-NYS Education committee used when we first introduced our lessons on mental illness to the advocacy community. Now eleven years later our educational package, which since 1999 has been called "Breaking the Silence: Teaching the Next Generation about Mental Illness" (BTS), is moving into its 4th edition and orders continue to come in from around the country and beyond. At last count we have received requests for our materials from 43 states and as far away as Armenia, Ireland, Japan, and Australia.

The soon to be available new edition of our high school packet includes stories about three extraordinary young people who are successfully meeting the challenge of living with mental illness. They are Jessica Lynch, who is using her platform as Miss New York State to educate people about depression and suicide, Ross Szabo, who has bipolar disorder and is director of Youth Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, and Meera Popkin, who starred as Miss Saigon in London a few years ago and is still actively pursuing a theatrical career despite her diagnosis of schizophrenia. In addition, the high school plans include an informational page on the science of mental illness, "Understanding Brain Chemistry".

Whereas the high school packet describes the challenge mental illness posed for Jessica Lynch throughout her childhood and young adulthood, a new story in the upper elementary school packet, "Stay-at-Home Mondays", depicts her struggle with depression while still in elementary school. As a follow-up to this lesson there are role plays for four cut-out brain puppets inspired by the popular cartoon brain depicted on our "Brains Can Get Sick Too" elementary school poster. An engaging bingo style game called BRAINO which tests students’ understanding of all the lessons in the booklet rounds out the latest additions to the elementary school packet.

But despite the appeal of our materials people often tell us they are unsure about how to approach what seems to be the daunting task of getting teachers to actually use BTS in the classroom. It is to meet this need for support and training that we have created our BTS Toolkit. This 40 page manual is chock full of concrete ideas on how to get your education project off the ground or, if you’ve had some success already, how to make it even more successful. Included in the Toolkit are such topics as rationale for mental illness education, how to organize and fund a BTS project, how to enlist and train volunteers, and support material to document the success of "Breaking the Silence".

News of the Tool Kit is spreading. There have been requests for the first draft from NAMI affiliates, county health departments, mental health systems, parents and other mental illness education advocates nationwide. Peter Paetsch, who is using the information in the Tool Kit to design a BTS Power Point presentation for the Chicago Public Schools, exemplifies the enthusiastic response we often get from advocates. He says that the "Tool Kit is extremely thorough. It provides step-by-step tools to introduce and engage school systems – complete with talking points, references, and ideas. This program should be introduced and implemented by every elementary and secondary school in the world. As a business leader, I have shared the materials with my staff as an example of a quality program."

The final draft of the Tool Kit will be ready for distribution by the beginning of March. Thanks to a generous grant from the American Psychiatric Foundation it can be obtained free of charge by emailing or downloading it from our website, Or you can call NAMI Queens/Nassau at (516) 326-0797. A limited number of free lesson plan sets will also be available for advocates who order and use the Tool Kit. We welcome your becoming part of this major educational initiative.