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LETS Make A Change

by Maddy Cook

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For Valentine, who taught to love myself, and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

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Table of Contents Dedication . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2 Table of Contents. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5 Introduction.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 Chapter I: Generation LETS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 Chapter II: Sarah’s Story . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . 14 Chapter III: LETS Club. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22 Conclusion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27 Works Cited. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28

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Foreword Throughout the process of documenting mental illnesses in high school, I learned two things about people: we never truly know what is going on behind closed doors, and people can be extremely rude. Sarah and I had quite a few mutual acquaintances, but I didn’t really know her. I had heard that she was bipolar, and thought it would be interesting for her to share her story. I was nervous as we drove to her house for the interview. We barely even know eachother- I couldn’t stop thinking about how uncomfortable this was about to be. She welcomed us into her home and eagerly began to answer our questions. I was shocked- I had no idea what she had been through. Her openness about her experience really opened my eyes. We are so quick to jump to conclusions about others, and we rarely take the time to learn about their lives. Had I not taken the time to interview Sarah and learn about her past, I would never have been able to learn about the LETS Club, or what it has done for her as well as the members of Mountain View and Los Altos High Schools. We need to take the time and get to know one another. If we do so, we will be able to see everyone’s beauty and not get hung up on our first impressions of them. Not only did I learn that it is important to get to know people, but I experienced firsthand how harsh people will treat others whom they don’t know well. When I mentioned some of my potential interviewees with some of my peers, they immediately began to bring up people pertaining to the subject. “I absolutely can’t stand her.” “She’s the biggest bitch I’ve ever met.” “I’ve known her since middle school, I have the right to be mean to her.” Everyone seemed to have something to add to the conversation, not a single thing positive. No one ever has any right to be mean to someone. Whether you’ve known them for six years, or you’ve known them for a day. It is extremely disrespectful. It hurt me to see an entire group of seemingly kind people bash on someone who didn’t deserve it. By ganging up on this person and talking her down, they did nothing. Odds are they didn’t feel any better after getting their point across, and they lost major respect from all whom were watching. Seeing an entire group of people attack someone without giving it a second thought gave me even more inspiration to put all my efforts into making this project great. My hopes are that once people get a peek at what I’ve seen, they’ll be compelled to be more open and accepting. But even if no one reads this, this project will have changed at least one person. I will never again assume I know what others are going through. I will take the time to get to know people before making judgements. We never know what’s going on behind closed doors. 5


Introduction.

Did you know one in four Americans suffers from a mental illness? That means 57.7 million people suffer with some form of a mental illnesses (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses IV), in the United States alone. In the past ten years, there has been a 77 percent increase in hospitalizations due to self-harm in women under 25. There are more than 105 suicides each day in America, and over ninety percent of those who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness. If half of people with mental illnesses begin to show signs by the time they are fourteen, why isn’t anything being done to protect our children against the horrors that can come from mental illnesses? With mental illnesses so common in the United States, odds are you or someone you know has been affected. However, it is very unlikely that mental health comes up in teen’s daily discussions. With their limited understanding of mental health and illnesses, it is hard for young adults to understand what their peers with mental illnesses are going through. Because of this lack of knowledge, teens often stigmatize their mentally ill peers and look down upon them.

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One group that works to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illnesses is the LETS Club. Generation LETS is working to educate teens on mental illnesses, with a goal of the awareness creating a more open and accepting environment for those who have mental illnesses or merely have questions about them. The organization hopes to make teenagers realize that mental illnesses are very real and very relevant. Many people with mental illnesses have been told that it’s “all in their head,” or that they’re “just saying that for attention.” We must learn to understand that mental illnesses are not a choice people make. We must learn that they are a serious illnesses with serious side effects. It is imperative that we open our eyes to the realities of mental illnesses and the stigma that surrounds them, and LETS is helping to do just that.

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Chapter 1

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Generation LETS 9


One organization working towards getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses is the LETS Club. LETS, or Let’s Erase The Stigma, is a foundation devoted entirely to raising awareness about and erasing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. The LETS foundation, founded by Phil Fontilea, strives to “increase mental health literacy, foster greater peerto-peer support, and improve help-seeking behaviors.” (LETS.org) Started in Los Angeles, California, there are new LETS Clubs springing up all over the United States, in many large cities such as New York and Washington DC. After Los Altos High School student Sarah saw how the stigma against mental illnesses affected her life, she looked to find a club in her area. When her search came up dry, she decided to start her own. The Los Altos High School LETS Club is the first LETS club in northern California. With 30 consistent members in addition to over 100 members on their Facebook page, the LETS Club at Los Altos has taken huge steps in erasing the stigma around their campus. Every year they have Mental Health Awareness Week, where the club talks to the entire school about issues with the stigma surrounding mental health. They had a suicide awareness training at their school, which encouraged students to speak 10


out when they are worried about a friend or see their friends acting differently. It was geared toward getting students to open up to their peers when they were feeling low or needed help. The Los Altos LETS Club has weekly meetings and attends seminars geared towards informing others on how to erase the stigma. Although there is still much to do, the Los Altos LETS Club has taken huge leaps in making their school a more open and inviting environment.

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When Sheila Ahi heard that her best friend was starting a LETS Club at her school, she was inspired. She knew what Sarah had gone through, and had been as supportive as she could along her entire journey. With Sarah’s story as her inspiration, Sheila set out to start a LETS Club at her school. Although the Mountain View High School LETS Club is smaller than that at Los Altos, the support is still huge. The group meets every Monday, to discuss different activities that could help to erase the stigma of mental illnesses. The club did an event called “LETS Talk About Anything.” They walked around campus with large signs saying “LETS Talk About Anything,” and encouraged the people they saw to talk to them about whatever they needed to talk about. Sheila said the event encouraged their peers to “tell us anything they wanted to. We could give them advice... We wanted real conversation.” 12


The Mountain View LETS Club also works together and attends seminars along with the Los Altos LETS Club. Both LETS Clubs do the important job of bringing awareness of mental illnesses to high school students. They encourage students to open up and talk about what is going on in their lives. They encourage others to go out and spread the word about mental illnesses. The clubs have changed the way the schools look at mental illnesses, and they are on their way to erasing the stigma around mental illnesses.

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Chapter 2

Sarah’s Story 14


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Sarah always knew she was different. From a young age, she sought out attention more than other kids. Once she hit puberty, her teachers started to take notice. Eventually, they found that action needed to be taken. “The school put me on 51/50. 51/50 is basically when a student is a danger to themselves or someone else and they must be hospitalized at that point.” Sarah was hospitalized for cutting herself. Her experience in the hospital was very hard for her to share. She was physically searched, and essentially handcuffed to the hospital bed. “I was only 13 at the time and it was one of the worst experiences of my life, it still horrifies me to this day.” After hours in the hospital, with forced pills and injections, Sarah was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Once she returned to school, things went downhill fast.

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Sarah didn’t realize sharing her story with others would cause the reaction she got. Immediately, people began to call her names. The name calling quickly got to her. She thought, “maybe there is something wrong with being bipolar, maybe there is something wrong with having a mental illness.” Hearing people call her names and bully her over her disorder made everything worse. One night, over an internet chat, things took a turn for the worse. During a discussion with whom she thought were her friends, she got put down repeatedly for being bipolar. After being called a “bipolar bitch,” Sarah decided she had had enough.

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That night, she took over thirty prescription pills in an attempt to kill herself. She spent two nights in the ICU at Lucile Packard Hospital. When released, her parents told her to keep quiet about her trip to the hospital, and her attempted suicide. They were afraid that if word got out, Sarah’s peers would stigmatize her. They would look at her like she was weak, like she was different. Both her parents and the doctors agreed: she wouldn’t be sent to a mental institution if she swore to keep this episode a secret. They feared that if people began to hear about her suicide attempt, they would begin to bully her even worse than before, and she would take even more drastic measures to end her life. 18


Sarah’s story isn’t unique. Teens are told to keep quiet about their mental illnesses daily. In fact, teens commonly feel like they can’t share their feelings or emotions at all. As mental illnesses become more and more common in America, the stigma is more prevalent now than it ever has been. As Doctor Sally Broder, psychologist and therapist said, teenagers “don’t want to feel like they stand out for a bad reason. That would be something that would stop someone from asking for help.” When a teen may be showing signs of a depressive disorder or any other mental illness, they are often too scared to reach out, for fear of being judged by their peers. When these issues aren’t dealt with, they can manifest into stories similar to Sarah’s: their illness is left untreated, and they end up in the hospital for a suicide attempt- or worse. If these kids felt like there was an open environment in which they felt comfortable speaking out and expressing their concerns, suicide rates would be exponentially lower. They would be able to get the medical attention they need in order to cope with having a mental illness. 19


The stigma formed around mental illness is based merely on ignorance. Unless one has a mental illness themselves, or is close to someone affected, it’s very unlikely they’ll know much about them. Even Sarah, diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at a young age, admits to having been in the dark about Bipolar Disorder and mental illnesses in general pre-diagnosis. When people don’t have all the information about something, such as a mental illness, they base their assumptions off the little information that they do have. This leads to false beliefs and assertions. Many have the misconception that mental illnesses are simply a cry for attention, or believe that having a mental illness makes a person “weak.” What we must understand is that a mental illness is no different than a physical illness. A mental illness is simply a chemical imbalance in the brain. Since people can’t see a mental illness, as opposed to someone who has a broken arm or is paralyzed, it is harder for them to understand. They cannot relate, and therefore they don’t understand what it’s like to have a mental illness. The judgements that stem from this ignorance often have harsh effects, giving mental illnesses an overall title of “weird.” Doctor Broder believes that kids strive to fit in, and being labeled as someone with a mental illness will cause them to stand out in a way that they won’t want. If there aren’t any negative connotations around having a mental illness, teens won’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help when they feel like they need it. Eliminating the stigma around mental illnesses will help those affected to get the attention and help they need, and ultimately save thousands of lives. Research estimates that if everyone with mental illnesses were able to have their situation addressed and receive medication, over 70% of suicides could be prevented (National Institute for Mental Health). 20


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Chapter 3

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Hiding Behind Computer Screens

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Sarah’s suicide attempt was sparked by an online conversation. A simple misunderstanding led to a group of young girls calling their friend names, causing her to want to end her life. Doctor Broder states that “Social media can be really destructive. People can really post pictures of each that are not very flattering. They can say things, they can start rumors.” Teens are abusing the internet more and more as social media becomes more and more advanced. They are able to say and do things they normally wouldn’t, because they are hidden behind the computer screen, safe in the confines of their own bedroom. Teenagers need to realize that what they say online has a lasting effect on others, and it is very easy for miscommunications to occur when conversations aren’t held face to face. The miscommunication between Sarah and her friends quickly escalated into a full blown argument that clearly did not end well. Her friends were able to say nasty things to Sarah about her illness, because they weren’t face to face with her and didn’t have a sense of when to stop. If we can educate people on how their actions affect not only those with mental illnesses, but everyone they interact with, cyberbullying will not be able to reach the point it did with Sarah.

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The LETS Club has made substantial steps in erasing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. With over 40 clubs in 15 different states (letserasethestigma.org), the organization has begun to open the eyes of teenagers to be more accepting of those with mental illnesses. However, it doesn’t just stop with those 40 clubs. It is important that everyone takes action in order to make our society a more accepting environment. Even if you cannot join a LETS Club, make it your own personal mission to be open about mental illnesses. With one in four Americans having a mental illness, it is impossible for anyone to go about their day without interacting with someone affected by a mental illness. It is imperative that we think before we speak, and that we make sure our peers feel able to speak their mind and ask questions. Both in and out of high schools, we must work to foster a supportive environment for everyone around us. We must also work to be kinder in our use of media. It is easier to be disrespectful online, but once you’ve put something out there, it can never be taken back, and you never really know what kind of effect it’s having on the receiving end. All of our actions affect others, no matter how small. We must remember this, and remember to be open-minded about those with mental illnesses. Not only must we be open to others, but we must be open with ourselves. Even with all of the progress made, the stigma around mental illnesses is still relevant. Especially in the teen years, we cannot allow this stigma to hinder us from asking questions and seeking the help we need. We cannot let our feelings fester inside when the help we need is a conversation away. By ignoring the stigma and reaching out for help, we are working towards a stigma-free society. Remember: there is always someone who’s willing to listen. The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Never be afraid to reach out for yourself or others. A society in which mental illnesses are fully accepted starts with you.

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Works Cited LETS Club. Lets Erase The Stigma. LETS Educational Foundation, 2010. 9 March 2013 American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. American Psychiatric Association, 1994. Print. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Mental Health. Version number. US Department of Health, 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 4 March 2013 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Violence Prevention. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012. Web. 9 March 2013 Let’s Erase The Stigma. Let’s Erase The Stigma. LETS Educational Foundation, 2011. Web. 12 March 2013

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For further information on the LETS Club, please visit www.LETS.org

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