Informing Students About Mental Illness
John Hildebrand,
February 5, 2002
Newsday, Inc

If I tell them what is happening, they will probably think I am losing my mind and make me see a psychiatrist, Scott thought to himself. God, it's scary ....I get to school in the morning, and everyone is staring at me. A bunch of kids will be standing in the hall. I can tell that they are talking about me. I hear them saying my name, while they're standing around laughing and making jokes. I can just tell.
- from "Brave New Brain"
by Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen

Scott doesn't know it yet, and neither do his parents, friends or teachers. But the 17-year-old is suffering from schizophrenia.

Ask teens what they know about schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, and the answer typically will be "not much." Some might mention a TV show they once saw about a woman with multiple personalities (which is commonly mistaken for schizophrenia) or a homeless man they once bumped into on the sidewalk.

Too bad students aren't better informed, because schizophrenia usually strikes between ages 15 and 25. More than one American in every 100 is affected, and the next victim could well be a college roommate, or the guy with an adjacent locker in the school gym.

"I tell them this can happen," says Gail Weintraub, a health teacher at Hewlett High School. "You can hear a pin drop in the class."

Weintraub works mostly with 10th-graders, devoting two weeks of her classes each semester to various mental disorders. She also is one of a growing number of instructors who use lessons sponsored by a nonprofit grassroots organization, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

One lesson written for younger teens features a word-search game with names of famous people who have dealt with brain disorders. Among them are comic actor Jim Carrey, who has suffered from depression, actress Margot Kidder (manic depression) and math genius John Nash (schizophrenia).

Nash, you may recall, is the subject of the movie "A Beautiful Mind." The movie traces Nash's life - admittedly, in a Hollywoodized version - as he struggles with the hallucinations common to his illness and ultimately wins a Nobel Prize in economics.

Both the movie and actor Russell Crowe, who plays Nash, are considered virtual shoo-ins next week for Oscar nominations. Judging from comments some teachers already are picking up from students, publicity surrounding the film should help boost awareness of mental illness.

Carol Andre, who teaches health at Alfred G. Berner Middle School in Massapequa, recalls one seventh-grader who came into class recently and started talking about Crowe's portrayal.

"She was very excited," Andre says. "Any time there's awareness, even if it's on a subliminal level, every little bit helps."

Causes of schizophrenia still are not well understood, though research in the field is growing. Schizophrenia is considered a brain disease and is treatable with medication. One possible cause is a chemical imbalance in the brain that may make it difficult for those afflicted to concentrate on schoolwork or even on conversations with friends.

Typically, victims hear imaginary voices. Their terrified reactions often are misdiagnosed as the result of drug or alcohol abuse, especially since they may indeed drink or smoke marijuana in attempts to relieve symptoms they don't understand.

"Teachers can misjudge these children, if they don't know what's going on, as lazy, as behavior problems," says Lorraine Kaplan of Plainview, co-author of the NAMI lesson plans. "We need to think of this as a no-fault illness, one that nobody pushed someone into and one that nobody wants."

Kaplan herself is a former teacher who retired in 1991 after 28 years in the classroom. As such, she has taken her share of college psychology courses. Even so, Kaplan was caught by surprise when her own teenage son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1973. He now is in his 40s.

As a parent, Kaplan was encouraged to keep quiet about her son's illness, to avoid possible stigma, an approach she now regrets. The experience inspired the title of the lesson plans, "Breaking the Silence," which she wrote with two colleagues, Janet Susin and Louise Slater. Copies of the recently revised lessons may be obtained at cost by calling the Queens/Nassau branch of NAMI at 516-326-0797.