Awareness of the issues would lessen the stigma of mental illness.

Having dropped out of school in the eighth grade due to an undiagnosed mental health problem, I feel strongly that middle schools would benefit from having a curriculum focused on mental health education.

Offering the “Science of Mental Illness” curriculum, which is based on research by the National Institute of Health, would help junior high students gain mental health awareness that is much needed in our society. The curriculum teaches children about diseases of the brain, risk factors, and environmental influences that determine the susceptibility of individuals to develop mental illness. The program is geared toward minimizing the stigma of mental illness, while helping junior high students gain acceptance.

I support new legislation, LD 98, which would require the teaching of mental health awareness in middle schools. This bill is sponsored by Rep. Anne Haskell of Portland and co-sponsored by several other lawmakers, including Sen. John Nutting of Leeds.

According to the 2007 Maine Department of Education Regulations, schools are not mandated to teach mental health awareness in middle schools. They briefly teach about eating disorders and stress management, but don’t educate students about mental health issues, such as the symptoms of depression or anxiety.

This lack of knowledge prevented me from getting the help I desperately needed. In junior high, I was a fidgety and hyperactive child. I was disorganized, couldn’t concentrate, and was perceived by mainstream teachers as lazy and irresponsible. As a result, I lost interest in school, and dropped out of school in the eighth grade due to an undiagnosed mental illness.

I started working, doing odd jobs like babysitting or cleaning homes. When I was 16, I earned a GED and a driver’s license. By 17, I started working in a mill, which lasted for six years.

While working in the mills, I developed a work injury, which resulted in my having to leave. After hurting my body in manual work, I realized it was time to get an education and work with my mind.

With a large gap in my education, I failed the pre-entrance exam to get into college, but I was accepted and started going to Kennebec Valley Community College in September 2001.

Because of low-placement scores, I was referred to the student support services where I was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I accessed tutoring and school guidance, and learned how to compensate for my disability. Because of medication and therapy, I was able to graduate from KVCC with a 3.8 grade point average. Later, I was enrolled as an undergraduate, where I earned a bachelor’s in psychology with a 3.7 GPA.

I am proud to say that at 31 years old, I am currently enrolled in graduate school studying to become a social worker, because I overcame my mental health issues. Based on my experience, I think I could help others do the same. I availed myself of community services, including counseling, to overcome those mental health symptoms.

As a social worker, I could tell people, when they come to me, I have been in their place.

Children should have mental health education to teach them that if they are diagnosed with a mental illness, they can still lead healthy and productive lives with treatment. Middle school students need to be aware of mental health symptoms, so they may be able to understand and articulate any symptoms that they have without feeling ashamed.

Mental health awareness needs to become a more accepted part of our culture. There are millions of people in the United States who suffer with mental health issues.

I think that if I had been diagnosed sooner, I could have reached my full potential earlier in my life. I look at all I have accomplished and can’t help but wonder: Imagine what I, and others like me, could have accomplished, if we were diagnosed and received help while still in school?

Jamie Sylvain is a graduate student at the University of Maine studying for her master’s in social work. She lives in Waterville. E-mail: [email protected]


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