Date: Sunday, March 16, 2008
Section: LIVING
Edition: WEST
Page: 6D
Illustration: PHOTO (B&W)

Caption: Rita Thrasher (mug)

If mental illness can enter schools in a positive way Lorraine Michaelis is all for it. That means being part of the school curriculum helping all students learn about the disease as opposed to allowing individual students to suffer from it in silence.

Too often, children -- and adults -- who suffer from mental illness are misunderstood and are stigmatized by their peers, Michaelis said. Now that mental illness is part of the curriculum in Boca Raton schools, she hopes the effort can be duplicated in other schools, including those in Boynton Beach where she lives.

Boca Raton resident Rita Thrasher, a former teacher, is executive director of Boca Raton's Promise -- the Alliance for Youth and Families, which decided in 2004 to combat the stigma of mental illness. In 2005, she organized the South County Mental Health Alliance, a group of about 120 people, which is spreading the message in Palm Beach County classrooms.

Boca Raton Middle School was the first in the county to implement a special mental health curriculum, and Thrasher said she hopes it will expand to 10 local schools by May, which is National Mental Health Month.

Thrasher's daughter, Valerie, took her life in 2004 at age 42 while in the mountains of North Carolina. Valerie had suffered from bipolar disorder since age 11.

A year ago Michaelis lost her son, Jonathan to a heart attack. He was 45 and she said he suffered from depression for 25 years. She believes the stress of the disease and medication was too much for him.

"I want to pretty much do what has been done in Boca to make people aware, and teach the next generation about mental illness," Michaelis said.

The need to bring the topic to schools was highlighted in 2006, after "Unseen Struggles: A Report on Mental Health Needs and Services for Children and Youth in Boca Raton" was released.

Six people from the South County Mental Health Alliance were appointed to a task force to study the 50-page report and concluded that in order to have an impact in the community, they would have to go directly to the schools.

Michaelis has been in touch with Thrasher and part-time Boca Raton resident Lorraine Kaplan who co-authored a curriculum 15 years ago on mental health for students called Breaking the Silence: Teaching the Next Generation About Mental Illness. Kaplan's devotion to increasing awareness about mental illness also was sparked by the suffering of her own child. Her son Joel, who died of a heart attack in April at age 51, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17.

Eventually she became involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and realized that there were other parents like her, and that her son's illness was not her fault.

The lesson plans have been refined and are in their fifth printing. They are divided into upper elementary, middle and high school booklets, and consist of poems, games, posters and other activities to engage students. As a former kindergarten, first grade and special education teacher, Kaplan knew she wanted to do something meaningful when she retired from teaching.

Last spring, her curriculum was implemented in about half a dozen classes at Boca Raton Middle School.

In fall 2007, Kaplan received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to run studies in five schools across the country to see how well "Breaking the Silence" works to change students' knowledge and attitudes about mental illness. One of those schools will be Loggers' Run Middle School in suburban Boca Raton.

For more information about Boca Raton's Promise and the mental health initiative, contact Thrasher at (561) 981-5330.

For anyone interested in forming a group in Boynton Beach to bring about similar initiatives, call Lorraine Michaelis, at (561) 742-5404.

For information about Kaplan's "Breaking the Silence" curriculum, visit On the Web site is a link to a Feb. 7 segment on the NBC Today show on which Eli and Lorraine Kaplan talk about their son's diagnosis of schizophrenia and why they want to help others break their silence.