Navigating mental health as a young person can be filled with fear, confusion and loneliness. The Glendale affiliate of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, employs Ending the Silence, a program that partners with middle and high schools and other agencies to talk about issues surrounding mental health, as a way to educate young people on these topics.
“Ending the Silence gives these kids the vocabulary to talk about what they’re feeling with adults and their friends around them,” Katrina Yanez, who has worked with ETS for four years, told the News-Press.
ETS consists of a three-part presentation. First, the lead presenter lectures about the warning signs of mental health conditions, advice for seeking treatment and/or helping friends who are struggling, and coping strategies. This includes going over phrases that may be hurtful to those suffering from mental health conditions: for example, calling the weather “bipolar” when it frequently changes or referring to someone as “OCD” when they are particularly organized.
Next, students hear from a young adult presenter between the ages of 18 and 35 about their personal experience with mental health struggles. Lastly, both presenters hold a Q&A to give students a chance to directly engage with the material. Since asking a mental health question may seem intimidating, presenters ask all audience members to write down a question to increase participation.
Yanez, who lives with bipolar disorder, discussed how not having the type of informative and accepting conversations ETS provides in her middle and high schools negatively impacted her own mental health, remembering an aura of “shame” surrounding mental illness as a young person.
“Studies have shown the earlier the intervention, the better,” she said. “And with ETS, these kids have a chance to break the stigma. They don’t have to feel shamed or unvalued.”
NAMI Glendale, which serves communities including Glendale, La Crescenta, Burbank and Los Feliz, reached more than 4,600 students in the 2022-23 school year through the ETS program. Reg Clarkinia, community programs coordinator at NAMI Glendale, said that for the current year, they expect to have ETS presentations in Glendale Unified School District, as well as neighboring school districts, private middle and high schools, and various youth programs.
Clarkinia commends the “courage” and “vulnerability” honed by the young adult presenters, who they said typically live with “more serious” mental health conditions.
“For those who are living with a mental health condition, to turn that story into something that’s really positive, something that’s not a secret, into a part of their life journey is an incredible thing,” Clarkinia said.
Another important aspect of Ending the Silence, as implied in the program’s name, is destigmatizing conversations about mental illness. Clarkinia pointed out that while most people try to shield the world from their darkest moments, ETS presenters speak openly about this.
Marco Herrera, another young adult presenter, has given around 50 ETS presentations since becoming involved with the program two years ago. He shared how culture, family dynamics and gender can impact discussions around mental health.
Never having heard of mental health growing up, Herrera said his family’s attitude toward struggle was either to simply push through and wait for problems to pass or to turn to religious guidance. Both Herrera and his brother battled anxiety and while Herrera often found himself obsessing over work to distract from his mental health issues, his brother turned to self-medicating. In 2021, Herrera’s brother died from what is believed to be an accidental overdose.
“Losing my brother was obviously a huge loss, but I wanted to turn it into a gain somehow,” he told the News-Press. “I wanted to gain ground on being able to break down the stigma or improve the communication barrier especially in Latino households, like my own.”
Working with NAMI through ETS, Herrera feels he has specifically been able to reach the Latino community, as well as young men in general. With the influence of society’s patriarchal structure on human behavior, Herrera values being able to provide a male perspective on mental health and hopefully show young men that it is perfectly normal and acceptable for them to experience these things as well.
“I see the progress, I see the development and I’m excited for what’s to come,” he said.
Clarkinia also shed light on the benefits of having mental illness explained can have on young people who may not understand these concepts but may be living with someone suffering from a condition.
“No one comes up to a child [and explains] that there’s a serious crisis going on in their family. … So, they kind of are figuring it out as they go and it builds slowly until it boils over,” Clarkinia said. “So to be able to reach out to youth and tell them is really helpful.”
In her talks, Yanez, who in addition to her role at NAMI works full time at a mental health nonprofit, emphasizes the importance of telling a trusted adult if students have friends who may be suffering with substance use issues or suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
“Your friend may be mad at you, but at least your friend will be alive,” Yanez said.
With all the presentations Yanez has given, she spoke about one student interaction that especially stood out to her.
“A [young high school] girl came up to me and said, ‘Thank you. I’ve been really worried about my friend, and I’ve been worried about myself. I needed to hear that it gets better,’” Yanez said. “That was really impactful to hear that. At one point, I was her age and I thought it would never get better and so that was really beautiful.”
Another important aspect surrounding mental health discussions Herrera and Clarkinia both explained is understanding that mental health applies to everyone. Much like physical health, one person’s mental health can be in worse condition than another’s, but everyone experiences it.
“Mental health exists for everyone in the way that we’ve developed our coping skills and what we do to cope. … There’s just a refusal to talk about it,” Herrera said, adding that society often views those who are open about mental health as “some subset of people.”
Aside from including this information in presentations, ETS presenters also pass out stickers and bracelets with messages such as “mental health is every day” to serve as a “subconscious reminder,” said Herrera.
Above all, Herrera stressed the importance of taking care of yourself.
“You cannot be the pitcher filling everyone else up when you yourself are empty,” he said.
To apply to be an ETS presenter, visit bit.ly/etspresenters.