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Why I Speak to High School Students as a Mental Health Advocate

Last week, I went back to high school. I had something I wanted to share with the students. At one point, I realized I had 30 pairs of eyes watching me intently. I knew they were listening, really listening.

I told them about my journey recovering from anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia. I explained how hard it was when my little girl developed panic symptoms. Talee was in fourth grade when she had a panic attack at school. She was terrified it would happen again. She literally couldn’t make herself walk into the classroom and missed two consecutive weeks. She was afraid of being afraid.

I spoke on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I’m trained as a presenter for NAMI’s “Ending the Silence” program, developed for high school students. The goal is to raise awareness about mental illness and to help end the stigma. We discuss the warning signs of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and suicide. We talk about what to do if we notice the warning signs in ourselves or a friend.

I wanted those juniors and seniors to know I waited 20 years before I told anyone about my frightening symptoms. I knew it wasn’t normal when I felt disoriented, like I was living in a fog or dream. I knew it wasn’t right when all of a sudden, my heart would pound, I’d get lightheaded, shaky and fearful that I’d pass out.

I didn’t want anyone to think I was strange. So I kept it a secret. I figured I needed to deal with it, alone. The main reason I felt this way? Stigma. The stigma surrounding mental health conditions is strong and real. It can delay someone from getting treatment and symptoms can worsen. Mental illness affects millions of people throughout the world, not only individuals but also their families.

My daughter and I were fortunate, as we both recovered from panic disorder. It wasn’t easy, and there isn’t a complete cure. However medication and positive coping strategies, eating healthy, exercising and deep-breathing, enabled us to resume our normal lives. We’re productive, happy and in control of our panic.

I don’t remember mental health being discussed when I was in high school. I didn’t know anxiety and depression were considered a mental illness. I had no idea that other people experienced the same terrifying panic symptoms I did. Maybe if I’d heard about mental health conditions when I was a teenager, I would’ve received treatment earlier.

That’s why I speak out as a mental health advocate. I want people to know they aren’t alone. There is help available. There is hope. I’m looking forward to visiting more high schools to tell my story and do my part to help end the silence.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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