Tue07292014

Schools

LAHS student starts mental-illness awareness club

Photo Courtesy Of Sarah Merrick Los Altos High School sophomore Sarah Merrick, center, and her friends and fellow officers, from left, Anica Nangia, Jenna Iwamura, Chloe Simion and Emily Small, started a mental-health awareness club on campus.

When people hear of a teen suicide, bullying incident, eating disorder or other youth tragedy in the news, they wonder how they can help. But far more telling than the headlines is what remains unspoken.

One family is thinking, “We never saw this coming.” One teacher is thinking, “That happened here, too.” One friend is thinking, “I hope it wasn’t my fault.” One leader is thinking, “Good thing we don’t have those problems here.” One health provider is thinking, “We did the best we could.”

And thousands of students are thinking, “I’m going through the same thing, but I can’t tell anyone.”

Sarah Merrick, a sophomore at Los Altos High School, has responded to the lack of open discussions around such issues by starting a LETS (Let’s Erase The Stigma) Club. The club, which has more than 100 members at Los Altos High, offers a community where teens can talk openly about mental-health concerns and educate their peers early, before a crisis occurs.

Merrick is no stranger to these tough topics. She was hospitalized in junior high school and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After being bullied for exhibiting symptoms of the disorder, Merrick came to a realization.

“These (harsh) words were triggered by a miscommunication and poor education on what mental illness is,” she said. “(My bipolar disorder) has affected my life so much. I am fighting through it every day. I know it affects other people, and I don’t know why no one else is talking about it. It shouldn’t be something anyone is embarrassed about.”

The nationwide club prioritizes prevention and early education by empowering youth to openly discuss mental-health problems faced by their generation and by their communities. Stigma is the No. 1 reason individuals with mental-health concerns do not seek treatment (and when they do, delays of 10 years or more are common). In answer, LETS has created a resource for student-led initiatives to erase any stigma before it forms.

The LETS Club design is an easily implemented model that bypasses barriers of stigma because it’s “just a club.” Inviting students to talk in an informal environment, the club raises mental-health literacy before costly crisis intervention services are needed.

The Los Altos High chapter, the first in the Bay Area, hosts activities to increase and support mental-health awareness.

“Mental illness touches everyone in some way, shape or form,” Merrick said. “The whole community is asking what LETS is about and, when informed, is thankful for the work we are putting in to change the perception of mental illnesses.”

During Mental Health Awareness Week last May, Merrick said the club distributed turquoise ribbons and made posters to raise student awareness. Merrick read statistics on mental health over the intercom every day to educate the student population during the week.

“I think this is important, because the third leading cause of teenage death is suicide,” she said. “The only way we can eliminate this preventable cause of death is to talk openly about it.”

Merrick said many problems of addiction and drug use begin because students aren’t aware of a mental-health problem they might have. LETS was created to deter this type of behavior.

Looking forward, Merrick plans to introduce LETS clubs at Mountain View High and Egan Junior High at the start of the next school year. She hopes to develop such a successful model at Los Altos that other local schools can easily replicate it.

“It’s about creating an open environment for people to talk about mental illness,” she said. “Today I’m still recovering and finding a good treatment balance for my illness and expanding the knowledge of mental illness in my own community.”

For more information, visit www.Lets.org.

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