"Ending the Silence," aimed at middle and high school students, is the county's only school-based early intervention program for adolescents with or at-risk for mental illness. The program concentrates on youth because research shows that 50% of adult cases of mental illness begin by age 14. With early detection, accurate diagnosis, and appropriate treatment, kids with mental illnesses can be spared childhoods marred by anguish, bullying, and isolation.
"I am so excited to know that this program provides much needed help," said Aileen Caravelli, NAMI DuPage youth program director. "This program does a couple of things--it reduces the stigma of mental illness because it is more common than most people think, and it provides hope. People with mental illnesses can still lead great lives and as with any illness, early intervention is the key."
The program began in 2007 in just a few schools and is now in 43 schools, which includes about half the middle and high schools in DuPage County, according to Caravelli. Here's how the program works: Two-man teams set out to present to the schools. The teams are composed of a lead presenter (which is usually a family member of someone who has a mental illness) who makes the educational portion of the presentation, and then another individual who delivers a personal story, followed by a Q & A session.
"We can see that we are immediately helping kids by the questions they are asking," said Caravelli. "The personal stories are by far the most effective part of our program. They really hit home."
NAMI DuPage estimates that the program has reached 45,000 kids since its inception. One of those helping reach the students is Chrissy Tobias.
Tobias, a Glen Ellyn resident, tells her story to the students in hopes of being able to help even just one person. Tobias, who just turned 28, has traveled a long road to get to where she is today--a healthy, happy young woman who is managing her mental illness and making it her mission to help other young people who might be dealing with similar thoughts and situations. She wants them to know that there is hope and help.
While in middle school, Tobias began hurting herself. At the age of 12, when symptoms of her mental illness started surfacing, she hid them from her family.
"My family didn't find out that I was hurting myself until I was 21 and I was asked to leave college," Tobias said. "I look at the students I am speaking to, and I think if I can reach just one student, I'll know I've made a difference."
Tobias said that she spent a lot of time in and out of psychiatric hospitals, undergoing treatment along the way. That's when she became familiar with NAMI DuPage.
"It made me realize I wasn't alone," Tobias said. NAMI DuPage was equally important in helping Tobias' family as they enrolled in a support group for families, which helped them tremendously.
"What I try to get across to the students is that it's okay to ask for help," said Tobias. "During the question and answer session, I tell them from the start how things were for me and how they are now, and that they are a lot different."
Tobias recalled how much she struggled and felt hopeless for more than a decade of her adolescent life. Now, she is proud to tell us that this summer she celebrated two years of no self-injury, an achievement that took a lot of therapy to accomplish.
"Before I received help, I didn't have hope or the possibility of a future," said Tobias. "Before I couldn't see tomorrow, and now I look forward to it."
"Mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain," explained Angela Adkins, executive director of NAMI DuPage. "It is a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning."
Tobias has been speaking to students in the "Ending the Silence" program for about a year now. She explains to the students that getting help is a process.
"One year, I spent more time in the hospital than out of the hospital because I couldn't keep myself safe," Tobias said. "Getting help is a process--things don't stop overnight. With support and structure, it made me realize that this wasn't something I wanted to continue. I knew I couldn't stay in the hospital for the rest of my life nor did I want to."
Speaking to the students has been helpful for Tobias.
"Sometimes I get nervous, and I just take a deep breath and go on," she admitted. "I get lots of questions, especially 'why?', and I do my best to answer every one because I remember when I was where these kids are now."
While in junior high, Tobias recalled that she confided in a guidance counselor and told her that she was hurting herself. Tobias said that the guidance counselor told her that it was
unacceptable behavior and sent her back to class.
"My dad was the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education (DARE) police officer at my school," Tobias said. "All she had to do was tell my dad, but she didn't."
"I tell the students when they are reaching out for help, when one door is closed, keep looking until you find one that is open."
Tobias recalled one student's question, "How did you know that you were worth something?"
During the "Ending the Silence" sessions she gets lots of questions but this one sticks with her.
"When a teenager raises his or her hand and announces that he or she has a suicide plan and needs help, you know you've made a difference. No one wants to hear that," said Caravelli.
Helping the students is only the beginning for Tobias. A 2013 graduate of North Central College with a degree in psychology, she is currently looking for employment as a peer support specialist.
"NAMI has been so important for me and my family," Tobias said. "Everything that they offer reaches so many people. I'm extremely grateful for the organization and its people."
Tobias still attends a weekly support group. She is a strong, brave woman and no doubt an inspiration to everyone who comes in contact with her.
About The DuPage Community Foundation:
The DuPage Community Foundation seeks to raise the quality of life throughout DuPage County by fostering philanthropy, connecting donors to area needs and building community partnerships. Based on the American virtues of volunteerism and philanthropy, the Foundation fosters a legacy of support for the people of DuPage County by making grants to not-for-profit
organizations working in the areas of arts and culture, education, environment, health, and human services. Since its inception, the Foundation has built its endowment to more than $60 million and
awarded more than $19 million in grants to not-for-profit agencies serving the residents of
DuPage County and beyond.
Established in 1986, The DuPage Community Foundation is a publicly-supported 501(c)(3) organization to which contributions are tax deductible. It was created to benefit the people of DuPage County and receives contributions and bequests into a permanent endowment from individuals, corporations, organizations and foundations wishing to make lasting contributions to the people of DuPage. The earnings on these funds are then used, in accordance with donor wishes, for the Foundation's grantmaking and community leadership activities.
For more information about the Foundation, or to arrange future media opportunities, please contact Joelyn Kott, marketing & communications officer, at (630) 665-5556, extension 19, or firstname.lastname@example.org.