Silence That Promotes Stigma
By Mary M. Harrison

For six years Lorraine Kaplan taught at a school close to Pilgrim, a New York state mental hospital, and didn't notice the jokes people made about it. Then her bright and talented son, a high school senior, became sick in 1973. The family had no idea why his behavior was changing gradually in troubling ways until a psychiatrist diagnosed schizophrenia.

"Because of the stigma," the doctor advised, "I wouldn't tell anyone."

For a long time the Kaplans didn't. During her last 12 years of teaching, Lorraine Kaplan says, "Very often somebody would say, 'If I don't get this kid off my back, I'm going to end up in Pilgrim,'" she says. "No one dreamed that my son was in a hospital like that, because of one of the episodes he had had, and that my heart was breaking."

In time, Kaplan and her husband joined the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), a support and advocacy organization for persons with severe mental illnesses and their families and friends. Talking to other families in NAMI who were coping with a similar, unexpected illness helped them enormously.

"We decided that we had to speak out, that not speaking about mental illness is very unhealthy in every way," Kaplan says.

Today mental health professionals are unlikely to advise a family to keep mental illness secret. But in many homes and schools, the issue is still never discussed. Today Kaplan is helping to change that pattern in classrooms with a curriculum called Breaking the Silence.

She developed it with two other teachers whom she met at NAMI Queens-Nassau and who also have an adult child who has suffered from a mental illness. The curriculum is available through NAMI in upper elementary, middle and high school levels. Several activities, such as the middle school board game, can be adapted for use at all levels.

With true stories, activities and a board game or posters, Breaking the Silence debunks myths about mental illnesses and teaches the importance of getting care for them early. It sensitizes students to the pain that words like "psycho," "schizo" and "nuthouse," as well as frightening or comic media images of mentally ill people, can cause. Teachers and parents can find other helpful information and resources about mental illness under "Education" and "Children and Adolescents" at the NAMI Web site.

Founded in 1979, NAMI now has more than 210,000 members who have severe mental illnesses or have a family member or friend who does. NAMI focuses its education and advocacy efforts on the most severe mental illnesses, pointing out that they are now recognized as brain disorders: schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders.

Without education, children at school often make fun of students with those illnesses, Kaplan notes. "Kids who are different are always made fun of," she says. "And if children are very depressed or have obsessive-compulsive disorder, they're going to be different."

But as with offensive language, Kaplan says, students can be taught sensitivity to unusual behavior.

"They can be taught that some children can't help being different, and that they're suffering from something," she says. "Then kids can support others who are sick, and not feel it's something to be ashamed of."

For more information:

Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Blvd., Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-3042
(703) 524-9094
Helpline: 1-(800) 950-NAMI