FIG1 Not during her first
hospitalization or during subsequent hospitalizations for self-injurious
behavior and depression related to bipolar disorder did Kristina Hebner know
she was destined to be a mental health advocate.
Kristina Hebner is a youth advocate with the Mental Health Association
of New York City's Coordinated Children's Initiative.
Her life's mission began with an equipment malfunction.
It happened at a 2003 conference of Families Together in New York State
Inc., the state chapter of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental
At one point during the conference, Hebner, then 17, was asked to introduce
a videotape program on some of the activities held during the conference for
young people with mental illness and their families.
A technical glitch kept the videotape from playing, and to fill time,
Hebner extended her introduction into a speech.
Although unaccustomed to public speaking and a bit nervous, she spoke about
her illness, hospitalizations, and the importance of training emergency
personnel about mental illness.
Her 10-minute speech was met by applause and a standing ovation from an
audience of families and mental health clinicians who attended the
"People in the audience told me how powerful my speech was,"
Hebner told Psychiatric News.
It was then she realized she had something valuable to offer others.
Hebner began experiencing symptoms of mental illness when she was 8 years
old, after her mother was involved in a serious car accident and a close
relative died of cancer. She began to experience numbness on a regular basis
and said that she resorted to cutting herself as a way to "wake
In May 2001, when she was 14, Hebner was admitted to a psychiatric hospital
for the first time; she was released a week later, despite her insistence that
she was not ready to go. She was readmitted three days later with more than
100 cuts on her body. This time, she stayed for almost three months.
Hebner said one crucial part of her subsequent recovery was her family's
support. "They have helped me through many difficult times," she
She recalled that during her bouts with severe depression, "There
were many times when I felt as if I wasn't loved, or even as if I wasn't worth
During these times, she said, her family "came together and told me I
was loved and that my life was worth something."
After her speech at the Families Together conference, Hebner became a youth
advocate with the Mental Health Association of New York City's Coordinated
Children's Initiative, and soon she was using her oratory skills to convince
members of the New York state legislature to pass Timothy's Law.
The law, which is named for Timothy O'Clair, a 12-year-old boy who
committed suicide in 2001, would require the state's insurers to provide
coverage for mental health and chemical dependency treatment at the same level
as that for other illnesses.
The state legislature has not yet passed Timothy's Law.
In February 2004 Hebner launched the MYPATH support group for young people
aged 12 to 24 with mental illness. "We work with them and make sure they
know their rights within the different systems, such as foster care, juvenile
justice, or mental health," she said.
The group attracts as many as 30 youth from the New York City area and
holds meetings for several hours on Friday afternoons at one of the Manhattan
offices of the Mental Health Association of New York City.
Support group members often discuss issues related to living with a mental
illness, such as the stigma associated with a psychiatric hospitalization,
their feelings about medications and their side effects, and other concerns in
their lives, such as drugs and gang violence.
"The foundation of the group is empowerment," Hebner noted.
Some of the support group members live in foster homes, some have been
involved in the juvenile justice system, and others have substance abuse
problems, according to Hebner. Many of the young people have told her"
they come to the group because it gets them off the street and they
feel safe here," she noted. Many form friendships and support one
another outside the group as well.
MYPATH stands for Magical Youth Power Aspiring Team of Heroes, a series of
words various support group members said inspired and motivated them.
Hebner said she hopes that through their participation in the group,
something else will motivate the young people—a desire to undertake
leadership roles in mental health advocacy and "help to change some of
the policies relating to mental health issues."
Although Hebner, now 18, is in her first year of college, she still plans
to facilitate the support group.
"The support-group members encounter stigma all the time, and we're
here to break that stigma," Hebner said.
In June Hebner's initiative won her a youth award from the National Mental
More information about Timothy's Law is posted online at<www.timothyslaw.org>.▪