By Danny Gibbs
Every student loves the pencils. At once a blatantly calculating scheme to trigger conversations that would not happen organically and an effective, albeit backhanded, form of bribery. With that said, it does successfully engage them into participation. Eager for the reward they try to define stigma as part of a plant or something wrong with the human eye.
A small girl in the back of the class blurts out, “It means they hate you for being different.”
The eloquence of her estimation and the obvious experience behind it strikes me as if I were not prepared for it. I see myself in her desk long ago, thinking along similar lines but without the courage or opportunity to actually express them publically.
That is the power of NAMI Ending the Silence. We address an unspoken dynamic that exists in every facet of the high school experience. And yet no one acknowledges it. No one validates the feelings and questions relating to it. No one demonstrates the dire consequences of ignoring warning signs. And nobody equips these students with the essential tools in saving and improving the lives of those afflicted with severe mental illness.
NAMI Ending the Silence succeeds where so many other forms of outreach fail because of the genuine validity of our experience. Unlike many health teachers who work out of a book and have no personal context to draw on, we have the lived expertise acquired through years of struggle. We understand the hurt and anguish like no other and have earned the authority to portray hope as more than a concept. To us hope is a way of life that does not diminish our pain or give power to it.
What struck me about this young student’s eloquent and honest summation of stigma was not just its accuracy but also the courage to break through the bondage of discrimination through one singular voice. I could never have done this when I was in school. At that time, being different was my only identity and my existence was defined as an isolated intruder with nothing in common with anybody. So often my mind would cry out with hopeless fervor for somebody to care for me. Somebody who would understand me, teach me and remind me of my forgotten value.
That is what I am doing with every NAMI Ending the Silence presentation. I am screaming out to a stigmatized world that hope and inclusion are not the sole property of those our society defines as mentally healthy. Now I am receiving an answer. Now I am rallying the troops to stand up for issues once labeled as taboo or dangerous. When I relate stories of foiled suicide attempts I am restoring an all too often lost faith in the value of troubled lives. When I sound off about my accomplishments I help end the myth of our defective nature. And when I say there is hope for us to live a life of substance and value, I am drawing a line in the sand saying that no person should be hated because they are different.