School hopes to ‘smash the stigma’ pertaining to mental illness

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DEXTER — Having lost a member of the school community last year to suicide, students involved in the Seeds of Peace program at Dexter Regional High School wanted to do something to break the stigma related to mental health issues.
On the afternoon Of March 23 the entire school attended an assembly to learn about how to help their peers cope and they also heard from a Portland high school student whose Yellow Tulip Project ( is aimed at opening up a dialogue on mental illness.
Before the program in the gym, English/language arts teacher Lisa Quatrale said following the assembly a panel made up of Principal Steve Bell, school social worker Nichole Webber and speakers Dr. Rebecca Schwartz-Mette — a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Maine — and Julia Hansen of the Yellow Tulip Project would be available for the teenagers to discuss some of the issues brought up and that they are facing. “Students can ask any questions,” Quatrale said.
“I think awareness is the biggest goal, we feel like this is something we can do when people feel helpless,” senior Hannah Farrah said as her peers began to file into the gym. “We want to smash the stigma of mental illness.”
Addressing the filled bleachers on one side of the gym. Dr. Schwartz-Mette said the word suicide “is something that usually does not come out of our mouths.” She said talking about the subject does not put someone at greater risk or necessarily worsen the situation.
Dr. Schwartz-Mette said “one of the main things you can is do is know the risk factors and warning signs for suicide,” adding that these are separate and students should be especially cognizant if someone they know is demonstrating both.
Risk factors include emotional issues, substance abuse, past thoughts pertaining to suicide, having the means to harm oneself, adverse life events, a family history, feelings of isolation and a lack of connection to others. Dr. Schwartz-Mette said simply exhibiting a risk factor will not necessarily lead to the contemplation of suicide but if warning signs develop, “We start to get more concerned.”
She said warning signs — which often do not feature the specific word suicide — include thinking of harming one’s self, saying you have had it and don’t want to be here anymore, giving away possessions, changes to personality, substance abuse and even a dramatically more positive mood shift. “They have made up their mind and it can be a relief to them,” Dr. Schwartz-Mette said.
“It’s not all risk factors and warning signs,” she said, saying preventative steps exist including feeling being connected to other people and having access to effective mental health care.
Dr. Schwartz-Mette said students should not ignore warning signs, downplay the seriousness of what a peer is saying and remind them of how lucky they are for what they do have or mention their own troubles. “It is important not to promise someone you won’t tell because you have to tell someone to get help,” she said.
“It is important not to take on the responsibility yourself,” Dr. Schwartz-Mette said. “The job is not to fix anything, just to get them the help they need.”
She told the audience if they are having such as conversation it is important they stay calm and encourage their fellow student to talk about how they are feeling to show they care. “It is very important to ask direct questions,” Dr. Schwartz-Mette said, such as are they thinking of harming themself?
“We need to get comfortable just saying those words,” she said.
“I think it is important to know your limit,” Dr. Schwartz-Mette said, as students can turn to teachers and staff at school who know how to help.
The microphone was then handed to Hansen, who is a junior at Casco Bay High School in Portland, who said she founded the Yellow Tulip Project after losing two close friends to suicide within six months.
“Just getting up and seeing the sunshine, those those things helped a lot but also the human connections,” Hansen said, saying her initiative is intended to let people know that “hope happens” as she wants to do something positive to bring awareness to mental illness so it will be discussed in a similar manner to physical illness.
“For me I wanted to continue on their legacy with the Yellow Tulip Project,” Hansen said. “It’s meant to remind people of the hope and beauty in the world even in the harshest times.” She said one friend’s favorite color was yellow and the other’s favorite flower was the tulip.
“Even in the harshest of times, asking for help is not the weakest thing, it is the bravest thing,” Hansen said. “There is so much hope and beauty out there.”
After the assembly Hansen said the Yellow Tulip Project is meant to help smash the stigma around mental illness as this needs to be discussed and those suffering should not do so alone or feel ashamed. “I’m hoping they realize there’s hope out there and they realize there’s beauty out there,” she said.
“Having a student makes a world of difference,” senior Zach White, who helped organize the event and introduced the two speakers, said after the presentation. “She has first-hand experience and that is really powerful.”

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
PLANTING A SEED FOR MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS — Julia Hansen, a junior at Casco Bay High School in Portland and the founder of the Yellow Tulip Project, was one of the speakers at an all-school assembly on March 23 at Dexter Regional High School. Hansen founded her initiative after losing two close friends to suicide to let people know that hope happens and to start a conversation about mental health to work toward smashing the related stigma.

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