A mental health awareness program in Michigan is liberating high school students from their preconceived notions about mental illness and empowering them with the knowledge that mental illnesses are treatable.
The program, Mental Illness Needs Discussion Sessions (MINDS), has been gaining momentum since 1989, when it started with little more than $5,000 and the hope that the next generation of Americans would view mental illness with understanding and compassion rather than shame and stigma.
She told Psychiatric News that she said to herself at the time, "If I want to be an advocate, I should be out there helping people with mental illness in some way."
Irish sought to enlighten youth about mental illness by teaching them the facts in a place where mental health education has usually been absent—high school health class.
She approached a community business leader in the Detroit area to get seed money to begin her program and to assemble a board of directors that included psychiatrists, school administrators, corporate leaders, and other mental health advocates.
MINDS began in two ninth-grade health classes in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and has since reached 15,000 students in the southeastern part of the state.
During a 55-minute class period, Irish typically teaches students about the symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse.
Students also learn about treatments available for people with these disorders and where to turn for help if they or a loved one show signs of any of the illnesses.
In the classroom, Irish displays posters of famous people who had a mental illness, including Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Kurt Cobain, and Princess Diana. The students are surprised to learn that Mark Somers, whom many of them know as the host of the game show "Double Dare," has obsessive-compulsive disorder, Irish said.
"We want to show the students that mental illness is going on every day around them."
The MINDS seminar presents the first opportunity many students have had to discuss mental illness. "It’s like the floodgates have opened," Irish said.
Some begin speaking openly with stories of their own depression, for instance, and tell the students around them how they sought help and have since recovered. The story resonates with one or two other students in the class, and a conversation ensues.
In addition, the students’ misconceptions fall to the wayside when Irish takes her place at the front of the room. "Scary, stupid, crazy, retarded—these are the words that my students used to think of when they heard the term mental illness," Irish said.
Many of the students didn’t know that mental illnesses are brain disorders, according to Irish, and took a "bootstraps" view of a disorder such as depression. It is a character flaw, many believed.
For some students who have been diagnosed with ADHD, the seminar comes as a welcome relief. Many visit the school nurse to get medications during the school day, but lack knowledge about their illness.
"No one really sat down and talked to these students about the fact that ADHD is a brain-based disorder," Irish said.
The status quo on drug abuse education for many high school students amounts to little more than the "Just Say No" refrain that became popular in the 1980s. But the slogan doesn’t explain anything to young people about what addiction really is, according to Irish.
"MINDS teaches them about what happens with the neurotransmitters and nerve cells" in substance abuse disorders and other mental illnesses, she noted.
Students leave the classroom with two brochures—one describing the symptoms of different mental disorders, and the other listing local, state, and national help lines, referral agencies, and other organizations.
Erasing the stigma associated with mental illness is especially rewarding for Irish, since she encountered it on a regular basis growing up. Doctors diagnosed her grandmother with paranoid schizophrenia in 1968, and Irish witnessed her grandmother’s marginalization from society. "People didn’t understand that she was sick," Irish recalled. "They thought she was bad."
Irish said she saw stigma "over and over again in a multitude of places, which was just heartbreaking." Even in hospitals, Irish’s grandmother couldn’t escape the stigma that surrounded her. When she sought nonpsychiatric medical attention at the local hospital, Irish said, the hospital staff would make a circular motion around their ears and say, "There is nothing wrong with her—she’s just crazy."
For years, Irish studied everything she could find about mental illness and acquired an extensive knowledge of the subject. By the time she launched the MINDS program, she was prepared to explain mental illness in a way that others could understand.
Upon the release of the 1999 Surgeon General’s report, "A Call to Action to Prevent Suicide," Irish realized that MINDS fulfilled a number of the recommendations set forth in the report, such as education, destigmatization, and community outreach.
At the urging of Col. David Litts, a physician who serves as special advisor on suicide prevention to the assistant secretary for health and the U.S. Surgeon General, Irish decided to measure the impact of MINDS on high school students.
She contracted with the Detroit-based program evaluation firm SPEC Associates last year to survey 894 ninth graders about their attitudes toward mental illness before and after participating in a MINDS seminar. Irish ensured that a cross-section of students attending rural, suburban, and urban schools completed the survey.
The evaluation showed that after attending the seminar, the students were much less likely to avoid someone with a mental illness and to believe that people with mental illnesses are dangerous. In addition, the percentage of students who believed that mental illnesses are treatable increased significantly.
Irish plans to publish the results of her preliminary study and is working with Kerry Knox, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester, to conduct an additional study. This one will measure students’ attitudes toward mental illness at three, six, and nine months after the MINDS seminar.
The MINDS program is free to schools and is funded by donations and grants from the Thomas Group, the Metro Health Foundation, the Isaiah Thomas Foundation, and Novartis Pharmaceuticals.
Currently, Irish is leading seminars in 25 Michigan high schools with the help of Senta Furman, a medical student at Wayne State University in Detroit, who plans to specialize in psychiatry.
Perhaps the best testimony of the program’s success comes from the students themselves. "My brother has ADD, and I used to think he just wasn’t trying," wrote one 14-year-old student. "Now I know that it is not his fault, and I will help him remember to take his medicine."
Information about the MINDS program is posted at www.mindsprogram.org. ▪