Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  And, among teens and adults who live with mood disorder, it is 100 percent preventable.

That was one of the messages conveyed to a rotation of teacher Jenny Harrington’s health classes at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park during the presentation of “Ending the Silence” in September.

The 50-minute video, with a testimonial and Q &A component, was led by volunteers Megan Harkins and Pooja Nagpal, both  National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Metro Suburban Advocates.   

Individually, each young woman shared her personal journey with mental illness, with the aim being to raise the middle schoolers’ awareness around the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), panic attacks and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and bi-polar disorder, as well as schizophrenia.

“We know that one in five kids will experience the onset of a mental health condition, but only 20 percent of them will actually get help,” said Harkins, who told the students that she is living with an anxiety disorder, while pursuing a degree, then a career in law.  “Helping middle school and high school kids understand the issues of mental illness makes a big difference because if we can teach them about the warning signs, we can help them learn how to help themselves and their friends.”

Harkins added NAMI’s stats indicate that 50 percent of students, ages 14-plus, who are living with an undiagnosed mental health condition, rarely seek help to manage it.

Their hope, she said, is to change that.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds, so through this presentation, we are trying to share a message of empathy and hope because there are ways you can go to get help,” Harkins told the 14 students in Harrington’s end-of-the-day health class.

Nagpal, 29,  who was diagnosed as having ADD and Major Depressive Disorder in her early 20s, said, “Unfortunately, there are a lot of tragic situations where people end up taking their own lives because they do not reach out for help [because] they are still afraid to talk about it out loud. Teenagers need to know what mental illness is all about, and when I share my personal story, it makes me feel better, and it makes them feel better, so it is a win-win situation.”

As a NAMI Advocate, Nagpal speculates she has carried that message of hope and healing to over 1,000 students at local public and private schools.

Harrington says she counts on the annual presentation, as its message lines up with her curriculum, in her classes at Gwendolyn Brooks, and OPRF summer school students, most of whom are entering 9th grade.

“I hope what the kids will take away is that it is OK if you suffer from some mental illness and take a medication, or go see a counselor.  We want them to understand that the norm now is to go and get help from me, or another trusted adult,” Harrington said.  “With this NAMI program, we can reach out and catch those kids, and we need that safety net.  I can’t say it enough.”

National Alliance for Mental Illness

Address: 816-818 Harrison St. 

Oak Park 60304

Phone: 708-784-4085


Leadership contact name: Kimberly Knake executive director

Statement of purpose: Improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness by providing education, support and advocacy

How long have you been in existence? 27 years

Ways volunteers can help: Volunteers can help with a wide range of activities including leading groups, becoming trained teachers, voice instructors for our music groups, office support and special events.

Useful donations other than money: Small gift cards for our drop-in center participants to use for groceries, toiletries, etc. Musical equipment for music therapy groups, new laptops/ computers for our employment program.

Join the discussion on social media!

Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

One reply on “Ending the silence around mental illness in teens”