Taylor Faber was a tad nervous, but tremendously resolved.
The St. Paul High School senior watched the student body and scores of community members stream into the school's main gymnasium on Feb. 10 as he prepared to share his senior project, "Wipe Out The Stigma," focused on mental health awareness and education.
The overarching lessons that emerged were that mental and emotional stresses can happen to anyone; they should not elicit shame; isolation exacerbates the conditions; it is vital to face mental health issues head on and get help; if you know someone who appears to be struggling with such issues, help them get help.
Faber set up a town-hall format with a variety of panel members who fielded questions for nearly two hours from a diverse audience that included students, teachers, staff, townsfolks and media.
The panel was equally diverse, consisting of mental health professionals, Woodburn Police officer Robert Prinslow, SPHS social studies teacher Dan Sullivan and Newberg mother Leslie Brittell and her daughter, Abby, who spoke about the challenges in managing bipolar disorders.
One of the mental-health workers, Sarah Zecchi of the Marion-Polk chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), joined Abby Brittell in describing personal struggles, such as frequent ups and downs, wreaked by bipolar 1 disorder.
The other professionals were psychiatrist Emina Bajrovic from West Linn's Mind Matters Child & Family Psychiatry and clinician Laura Avery-Valentine, a mental health professional from Marion County Health and Human Services' Early Assessment & Support Alliance.
Faber said he could relate firsthand to the episodes and experiences described by Zecchi and Brittell, and that provided the impetus for his project.
"I had to go to the hospital for something that happened to me, so my goal for my senior project is to get awareness out there about mental health," Faber said in a recent Graphic story. "People need to know and have a better understanding of what goes on with mental health."
His St. Paul peers and neighbors at the town hall helped him achieve that aim.
The town-hall audience provided a plentiful and varietal array of questions: What causes teen mental illness and why is teen mental health important? Where did the mental health stigma come from? What can you do as friends and family to support someone with mental illness issues? Who can you approach to get help for mental illness? What can people do to improve their own mental health?
More than a dozen questions generated a broad range of perspectives from the panel as moderator Don Kunkel, also a SPHS teacher, rotated around the group to hand off the mic as panelists provided anecdotes, expertise and sound advice to all on hand.
Bajrovic explained that there are both genetic and environmental factors affecting mental health, and that determining which is more prevalent in any given case is a difficult task; it's more important to diagnose and treat it with the best means at hand.
Zecchi described the vicissitudes of her bipolar battle; being elated one moment and near suicidal the next. She stressed the importance in keeping a keen understanding that any state of mind, now matter how despondent it may seem, will pass.
Abby Brittell described her experiences with medications.
"I had (prescribed) medications and did not like taking them," she said. "But when I didn't take them, I discovered that they do help, and I need to take them."
Prinslow explained that when law enforcement contact or are called to a scene with someone suffering from mental illness, it's often in the extreme condition, to the point of the person hurting themselves or someone else. He applauded local law enforcement jurisdictions for heightening awareness of mental illness and finding more appropriate ways to handle it, including dispatching specially trained teams and medical respondents to the scene.
"It used to be that (police) would just slap the handcuffs on them and send them to the state hospital," Prinslow said.
Sullivan emphasized that kids should not deal with a friend's condition alone; they should seek the help of an adult. Teachers, parents, clergy and mental health professionals were among those cited as people who can be approached with the problem.
The social-studies educator also pointed to some simple practices that support positive mental health: exercise, a balanced diet and getting adequate rest.
Avery-Valentine advised keeping a check on substance abuse. She also noted that people who are reluctant to seek help due to a lack of insurance or resources do have options and advised they can pursue those through county and state agencies that provide them.
Once all the perspectives were voiced, the overall mental illness message was clear: it can happen to anyone, it's not shameful; and it can and must be handled directly.
Faber showed a power-point presentation that included a number of pithy adages to bring the message home, such as "HOPE means Hold. On. Pain. Ends." The SPHS senior said he was buoyed by the event.
"I thought my senior project on mental health was a success," he said. "I achieved my goal of informing the students, staff and community about mental illness. I am very glad that I decided to do this senior project. I got a lot out of this presentation as well. I felt humbled having my classmates and staff supporting me today."
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