By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Let this be a day of healing and education.”
That was the hope voiced in the prayer that opened the first-ever Mental Health Day at Seattle Lutheran High School in The Junction.
It was intended to be life-saving – but not dour. Humanities chair Tim Caudle, the organizer, also promised students, “Today is going to be a fun day – so you guys can learn that there is hope, there is a future.”
Parents were alerted more than a month in advance, and provided with an outline of what would be discussed.
We were invited to sit in on the assembly that began the day – with special guests from the Jordan Binion Project, founded by a couple who lost a child to suicide – a child the age of many who sat listening to them in the SLHS gym last Thursday morning – a child who had just turned 17.
This was the epitome of the urgency voiced by Caudle, who said that he and SLHS principal Dave Meyer had been to three funerals of people with some connection to the school.
The statistics told the story: Mental illness affects one in five people directly – and their loved ones.
That’s where Deb and Willie Binion stepped up to talk about the nonprofit they co-founded to educate high-school students about mental illness, named for their son Jordan.
She explained: “Because we don’t talk about mental illness much in our society as a whole, many fears and misconceptions … We believe it is extremely important to educate young adults about mental illness … we want to get rid of the stigma, the shame and disgrace …”
Educating youth will influence the future, and when it’s OK to discuss, it will be OK to get help: “Stigma, that shame, is thought to be the largest barrier to seeking help.”
They want people to be as comfortable seeking help for mental health as any other illness.
They want people to be able to recognize the warning signs, and to know that reaching out to help someone is a sign of loving and caring for them:
“Life is really about how well we love … and care about each other.”
Willie Binion took the microphone: “When we don’t ask for help, we assume all of the burdens … that would be easily shared by those who love us.”
He spoke about his background as a military veteran – and about courage, which, he said, is what makes a hero, and sometimes, he noted, asking for help requires courage.
And he spoke, vividly and cheerfully, about Jordan, describing him as positive, outgoing, energetic, and smart. So smart, he started first grade when he was 4 years old. A golfer, football player, guitar player, the only one of the Binions’ three kids who learned to drive a five-speed stick-shift car.
Then … something changed.
Deb explained that Jordan started to show signs of depression, started to isolate himself, stopped doing things he loved, such as asking for a snowboarding pass, something he had done every fall. His family-practice doctor diagnosed him with depression and prescribed medication. He seemed better for a few months, and then they started to see “some other signs of mental illness that are not necessarily assigned with depression.” While he was never diagnosed with it, they thought he might have had schizophrenia.
“Six days after his 17th birthday, Jordan took his own life. … We do not want to see what happened to our son, happened to our family, happen to anyone else. … I miss our son every single day.”
90 percent of the people who die by suicide, or make an attempt, have a diagnosable, treatable mental illness, the Binions told the students, and then made an emotional appeal:
“I don’t want your parents to rely on pictures or memories … You are a joy” (to them) … “They don’t want to have to look back and remember you. They want to experience (you). I don’t know you … but I can tell you this without a doubt … every single person sitting in this room has value. You have value. You are here for a reason …. even if you are faced with a mental illness at some point in your life, that does not take away your value. … I don’t know you, but I love you.”
Her voice broke as she repeated that this message is “why we do what we do.”
Then, they set about debunking some myths, via a true/false quiz.
Are mental illnesses caused by bad parenting or family dysfunction?
The next two questions underscored the point that mental illness is physical too – with chemical/brain-wiring factors, so “as such there should be no shame associated with having a mental illness …. a person doesn’t cause it … it’s not a weakness … you can’t just will it away.” There can be some genetic predisposition too – but it can happen to anyone, even if that factor isn’t present.
Do people with mental illness have lower IQs? FALSE. Willie told more of Jordan’s story at this point, and his brilliance.
Do symptoms of mental illness usually start developing between the ages of 15 and 24? TRUE … which is why it’s especially important that teens and young adults learn about it and know it’s OK to talk about it and to seek help. Deb explained, “You guys are the age group when symptoms first start to show up. They think the earlier a person gets in, gets started on a treatment plan, the better their chances for leading a productive life.” Willie added that the age group includes those in the first few years of college, which are difficult enough without complicating factors.
Deb asked if anyone knew why the symptoms start showing up during those years. A few guesses ensued. The answer: That’s when brains are growing most rapidly – and as a result are most vulnerable.
The next myth debunked: The belief that people with mental illness are more predisposed toward violence. Actually, Deb said, they’re more likely to be victims – but you’d never know that from media portrayals of people with mental illness.
They talked about treatments, and talked about coping strategies for anxiety – Willie mentioned relaxation, breathing, being mindful of your thoughts and how to change them.
Then, as they mentioned again how many millions of people would be affected by mental illness, Deb said, “often we don’t realize it because we don’t talk about it.”
Stand up if you know someone with anxiety disorder, they said.
Stand up if you know someone with depression.
Stand up if you know someone with bipolar disorder.
Stand up if you know someone with schizophrenia.
Now look around the room.
Most (if not all) were standing.
After a pause to ponder that, Willie explained, “We want to start the conversation, but we want you to continue it.”
So they answered questions that students had written in advance.
An early one: “What are the signs of depression?”
Answer: Loss of interest and pleasure in life, change in sleep pattern, change in appetite – you might eat more, you might eat less. Your ability to focus, to concentrate, might change, and your energy level.
Another: If someone cuts themselves and shows that to others, are they looking for attention?
Answer: It’s a way to deal with emotions, maybe with feeling out of control. “The key to all of this is recognizing the signs and symptoms and seeking the appropriate treatment,” Willie said.
Then: “What if a friend expresses suicidal thoughts?”
Deb answered, “If somebody says they are thinking about suicide … it is not up to you to take on the responsibility of making sure they get help … reach out to their parents or someone at school or … i know it seems difficult, but A MAD FRIEND IS BETTER THAN A DEAD FRIEND. If they are talking about it, something is wrong and needs to be addressed.” Open a conversation, she urged. Ask if they have a plan. Don’t keep the friend’s disclosure a secret – “they need to get help” – it’s not up to you to decide how serious they are about suicide. Getting that help is the “greatest act of love” you could show for that friend.
Someone wondered if high-school relationship trouble contributes to mental illness.
Not really, said Willie, but everything at this age seems “so strong …” he joked that if he had married his high-school sweetheart, he never would have found himself married to “this lovely woman,” with a nod to Deb. “What you think right now is devastating is not going to (seem that way) over the years.”
The questions went on – about caring for yourself to take care of your health, physical and mental (drink enough water! get enough sleep!). And then – it wasn’t the last question, but this one was decidedly the most important: A student asked the Binions, what is the #1 thing you want people to know?
Deb replied: “That there is hope. Your life is not over because you have mental illness. Effective treatments can stabilize and correct symptoms … There is always hope.”
Thanking the Binions, Tim Caudle returned to the front of the room.
“Our goals in creating this day, to educate you … to start attacking stigma … I can’t imagine a better way to start our day.” When people are diagnosed with physical illness, the support seems endless. With mental illness – not so much. “Let’s change that!” he exhorted the students.
And off they went into a day dedicated to doing exactly that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Anyone at any age thinking of self-harm can get help around the clock. One good place in our area is the Crisis Clinic, with its 24-hour hotline at 206-461-3222.