Ledyard students describe encounters with mental illness

Ledyard - Every year for the past four years, sophomores at Ledyard High School have been given an assignment to explore an issue many people find hard to talk about - their personal experience with mental illness.

"Mental illness is part of every family, but so often because of the stigma, we don't say much about it," said James Sorensen of Ledyard, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southeastern Connecticut.

Sorensen is the organizer of the "Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness" essay contest that Ledyard High health teachers James Buonocore and Steve Bilheimer incorporated into their class.

"It fit in with what were teaching," Buonocore said Monday. "Mental illness is such an important topic for our students to become educated about."

While mental health issues have been a receiving a lot of attention this year in the aftermath of tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Buonocore said that overall, the students wrote about their own encounters with mental illness, rather than generalized social policy concerns.

"They centered on specific illnesses they were familiar with through their families, or witnessed through the media," he said.

This Wednesday at Uncas on Thames Hospital in Norwich, NAMI will recognize four students with awards for the first-, second- and third-place and honorable mention awards. The event is timed for Mental Health Awareness Month. This year's contest drew 92 entries, the most ever, Sorensen said.

In one of the winning entries, a student wrote about her brother's obsessive compulsive disorder and the behavioral therapy that helped him and ultimately enabled him to enroll in a music conservatory.

In another winning essay, the student described facing his own attention deficit disorder and learning to control his aggressive behavior through counseling. Others told of a friend with Asperger's syndrome, and of grandparents' deterioration with Alzheimer's disease. Prizes for the winning essays range from $250 to $100.

"NAMI's goal is to raise awareness, so this (contest) allows us to reach them at a young age," Sorensen said. "They recognize that some of their peers are different and don't know why. This gives them the opportunity to explore, or perhaps to disclose for the first time that they, too, have a mental illness."

He and the four contest judges, he said, were impressed with the frank, straightforward approach students brought to a topic often considered taboo.

"They are refreshingly clear and direct," Sorensen said. "They just say it and don't dance around the elephant in the room."

j.benson@theday.com

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