By Jami Gibson

Mental illness isn’t a topic many people are comfortable addressing as there seems to be a stigma attached to those who struggle with some form of a mental health issue. Often, people think those afflicted by mental health issues are crazy, dangerous, or antisocial, among other negative traits. On the contrary, most people I’ve encountered who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are successful outgoing professionals, doctors, teachers, and leaders. These issues do not discriminate; they can affect people of any age, race, or socioeconomic status. As with any physical ailment, mental illness can be managed (and perhaps overcome) with the same treatments: therapy, medication, diet, exercise, etc.

Over the past year, I’ve been made aware of a campaign called “be nice.” It is an initiative to raise mental health awareness, bullying and suicide prevention in schools and businesses. Right now, numerous schools in West Michigan have implemented the program, and it’s rapidly expanding East in the state and to surrounding states, with a goal to be a national initiative. I’m passionate about this cause for two reasons:

1) I have been living with panic disorder for nearly 5 years, and
2) Last year, I lost a close friend to depression by suicide.

I think it’s essential to coach kids, starting at a young age, to recognize signs of mental illness in themselves and in others, to point out how daily actions can affect others’ quality of life, and to let them know there is help. Each curriculum (elementary, middle, and high school) has age-appropriate materials and messages. The “be nice.” model stands for:

Notice – notice behavioral changes in your friends/family
Invite – invite yourself to initiate a conversation
Challenge – challenge the stigma; communicate important resources
Empower – empower someone to get help and know you can have an effect on his/her life

Perhaps a young lady who spoke at the most recent “be nice.” event said it best: “When you replace the ‘I’ in illness with ‘We,’ you get the word wellness.” Isn’t that true? It’s inspiring to know what can happen when WE come together for a cause.