By Janet Susin, Chair, NAMI Breaking the Silence Education Committee

“There is a deafening silence about mental illness in our classrooms today”. That is the phrase that rang through our minds in 1998 as we considered what to name our educational package of lessons, games, and posters that teach students in upper elementary, middle, and high school about mental illness.

We knew that students in health classes were learning about AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex and that major illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes also had a regular place in the classroom, often by state mandate. But it was the rare teacher who taught about mental illness. So we decided to call our materials “Breaking the Silence: Teaching the Next Generation About Mental Illness”.

Since first published in 1999 the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Written by three veteran teachers who know first hand the heartbreak of having a child with a serious mental illness, the lessons use stories to put a human face on mental illness and teach that it is biology, not a character flaw that causes mental illness. Students also learn the warning signs of mental illness, that psychiatric disorders are treatable, and how to fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

These lessons speak to all children, especially the three to five million children ages five to seventeen (5-9%) in the United States who are affected by mental illness. One of those is Rebecca. She recalls how she first heard voices at age five when she would go into the woods. Her mother’s advice was simply, “Stay out of the woods.” It wasn’t until she was seventeen and driving a car too fast that she first got treatment. Stopped by a policeman who was alarmed by Rebecca’s explanation of why she was speeding, he took her to a psychiatric hospital, rather than giving her a ticket. In Rebecca’s words, “I had a knife on the counter in the kitchen and was racing home so I could use the knife to kill myself.”

Rebecca is sure that if she had had a lesson on mental illness as a child it would have made all the difference in her life. So is Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist and former NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) board member. When she first heard one of our lessons read aloud she cried. She remembered the guilt she felt as a child because of her sister’s mental illness. Her parents were very hush-hush about it and she had only a vague understanding of what was happening to her. Consequently, she spent much of her childhood blaming herself for having caused her sister’s illness.

It is the Rebecca’s and Jill’s of the world that we are trying to reach with our message of hope and help as well as those who may never be directly affected by mental illness, but should understand its impact on society. To that end we are constantly seeking new ways to promote our educational materials.

Our most recent approach has been to develop a Tool Kit, which advocates around the country can use to guide them in their efforts to promote mental illness education in the schools. Thanks to the generous support of the American Psychiatric Foundation we have been given funding to develop and disseminate this training manual. It will be available free of charge to NAMI affiliates and other advocates of mental illness education throughout 2004.

The manual includes such topics as rationale for mental illness education, how to organize and fund a “Breaking the Silence” (BTS) project, how to enlist and train volunteers for the project, and teaching future educators about BTS.

We are particularly anxious to share our innovative approach to recruiting competent volunteers to do outreach to local schools, colleges, and universities. As we considered who would be the most comfortable and persuasive speaking to teachers, administrators, and students, retired educators seemed the logical solution. They are familiar with navigating the school bureaucracy, understand how teachers and administrators think and are comfortable speaking to audiences large and small. This corps of dedicated former teachers and administrators has proved invaluable in doing staff training in schools and speaking to future teachers in colleges.

News of the Tool Kit is spreading. There have been many requests for the first draft from NAMI affiliates, county health departments, psychiatric 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.
It can be obtained by emailing or downloading it from our website, A limited number of lesson plan sets will also be available free of charge for advocates who order the Tool Kit to use in their own outreach and for training purposes.

The just published 4th edition of the upper elementary booklet includes a story about Jessica Lynch, Miss New York State for 2003, and her struggle with childhood depression along with role plays for cartoon brain puppets which reinforce the lessons learned from the story. The high school plans include stories of three extraordinary young people who have met the challenge of living with mental illness. Meera Popkin, who starred in Miss Saigon on the London stage a few years ago and is still auditioning for shows and getting parts despite her diagnosis of schizophrenia, is one of them. This booklet also features a lesson on brain chemistry and how it is affected by mental illness.

BTS has received orders from 43 states and as far away as Armenia, Ireland, Japan and the Virgin Islands. We welcome your becoming part of this major educational initiative.