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David Baxter PhD

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Going public with private battles: Elmhurst student aids push to talk of mental illness in school
By Meg McSherry Breslin, Chicago Tribune
May 3, 2007

Susie Piasecki was a promising soccer star on an athletic scholarship at Western Illinois University when she experienced her first manic episode, a sign she was suffering from bipolar disorder. Embarrassed and shamed, she dropped out of college.

For years she struggled to accept the diagnosis. But last year, as a junior re-enrolled at Elmhurst College, Piasecki decided it was time to put the shame to rest. She volunteered to tell 30 classmates in her clinical psychology class how her seemingly charmed life unraveled because of mental illness.

"I was nervous but I just kept telling myself this is the right thing to do, that hopefully one person in the audience is going to get what I'm trying to say," she said.

Piasecki is part of a national movement on college campuses and in some high schools to have young men and women with mental illness discuss their lives, with the goal of strengthening the speakers and chipping away at the nagging stigma associated with mental disorders.

But some worry that the Virginia Tech massacre may present a serious setback in the effort.

The gunman, Seung Hui Cho, suffered from mental illness.

Sarah O'Brien -- who runs the "In Our Own Voice" program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which supports speakers such as Piasecki -- figures Virginia Tech will prompt more questions from college students and other speakers considering whether to talk freely about mental illness to large audiences. But she also hopes it offers an opportunity to highlight the prevalence of mental illness and the need for intervention and therapy.

"They're incredibly courageous for doing these presentations despite the fact there is a lot of anger and resentment out there," O'Brien said of the speakers. "But at the same time, every time they go out and make a presentation now, they're going to be fighting that stigma and anger. Hopefully they can teach that people who have an illness need help."

Piasecki, a 27-year-old Korean-American, is not slowing down. She works part time for the DuPage County affiliate of NAMI, giving her presentations on college campuses, to staff at hospitals, and to police and community groups. She will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Elmhurst College and hopes to continue working for NAMI or a similar group.

"It's not the mental illness that caused the violence [at Virginia Tech]," Piasecki said. "It's the untreated symptoms. Virginia Tech just highlights how bad the situation is. Had he had the help where he was, it might not have happened."

NAMI is at the forefront of the speaking effort, and other grass-roots organizations have formed with similar purposes. One of those is Washington-based Active Minds Inc., which was founded by the younger sister of a college student who committed suicide. Although NAMI's speakers range in age from high schoolers to senior citizens, Active Minds focuses exclusively on college-age students.

The NAMI-sponsored talks have grown from a few chapters in 2003 to the current 37 states, reaching roughly 50,000 people per year, O'Brien said.

Piasecki said giving the talks has been therapeutic.

"I found my confidence being restored each time I spoke," she said. "It got me believing in myself again."

While a student at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, she was a poised, gifted athlete, participating in soccer, volleyball and tennis. She got A's and B's and was thrilled to earn a scholarship to Western.

But in her junior year there, Piasecki, who is adopted, learned that her birth mother wanted to contact her. The news triggered her first manic episode. For nearly a week, she barely slept and ate, but felt great.

"It was like taking your best day and multiplying it by 20," she said. "That's how euphoric I felt."

There were many embarrassing incidents that week that she didn't want to discuss, although she does address some of those incidents in her talks. After being diagnosed, Piasecki was devastated, as was her family, now living in Elk Grove Village.

"Nobody wants to be diagnosed with a mental illness," said her mother, Jennifer Piasecki. "There's this shock and anger, 'Why me, why did I get stuck with this?' ... I found her a support group [through NAMI] and then I went to a support group myself."

Piasecki tried going back to Western, but said there were so many rumors spread about her breakdown that she couldn't handle being there. She dropped out, moved back home, and spent time building up the courage to re-enter college -- a program at Wright College in Chicago.

After getting involved with NAMI, she said, her confidence inched back, to the point where she felt strong enough to pursue her bachelor's degree at Elmhurst College.

Her talks have generated positive responses, but Piasecki said she believes the stigma associated with mental illness is strong. After her talk to the psychology class, she said, she overheard one student loudly talking about her to friends.

"She commented that my telling people about my story is like her telling people she has diarrhea," Piasecki said.

Some professors on the Elmhurst campus have been blown away by Piasecki's courage. Among them is John Wilkerson, 63, an adjunct education professor who kept his own bipolar diagnosis quiet for nearly 40 years -- even paying his insurance claims out of pocket -- while he was a teacher and administrator in Elmhurst public schools. He began speaking with NAMI's "In Our Own Voice" program after he retired, when he felt he could face the stigma.

"I'm just very proud of her," he said. "It takes a lot of courage, especially as a young person. She's beginning to understand now that coming out and discussing her life and experiences will create a conversation."
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