Af­ter brother’s sui­cide, med stu­dent aims to teach about men­tal health

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Naseem S. Miller

Three years ago, when Sirikanya Sellers was in the first year of med­i­cal school at UCF, her older brother ended his life. He was 23 years old.

Her brother, Yuth, was di­ag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der when he was 17 and had a his­tory of sui­cide at­tempts. But when he told Sellers he was again think­ing about tak­ing his life, she didn’t think he would go through with it.

“It was a very trau­matic event for me,” said Sellers, now a third-year med­i­cal stu­dent. “I spent countless hours think­ing about what I could have done and what I could do for some­one else.”

She started re­search­ing ado­les­cent men­tal health and risk fac­tors for de­pres­sion. Data was scant.

“But I found there are some things we can change, like so­cial fac­tors and psy­cho­log­i­cal pat­terns, things like how iso­lated you are or your neg­a­tive think­ing. So we can help mod­ify that to help them help them­selves,” said Sellers, who goes by the first name Sanya.

So a few months ago, com­pelled by the Florida Blue’s Health­care In­no­va­tion Com­pe­ti­tion in Lake Nona, she and a few of her class­mates started build­ing the foun­da­tions of a men­tal health ed­u­ca­tion non­profit called Ris­ing Youth — a name that pays homage to her brother.

Her goal was to cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram for mid­dle and high-school stu­dents, where they would learn about men­tal health. She reached out to Dr. Anuja Me­hta, di­rec­tor of psy­chi­a­try clerk­ship and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at UCF Col­lege of Medicine, for guid­ance.

Me­hta was a per­fect men­tor for the project be­cause she had al­ready seen a sim­i­lar out­reach pro­gram at Bos­ton Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal, where psy­chol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists reached out to pub­lic schools.

“As child psy­chi­a­trists, what we know is that men­tal health is­sues are be­com­ing more and more com­mon among youth. More ado­les­cents ex­pe­ri­ence anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal­ity. So pre­ven­tion is re­ally im­por­tant,” said Me­hta. “You want to start at the root and school is a great place to start.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion has started reach­ing out to lo­cal mid­dle and high schools and plans to start de­liv­er­ing its pro­gram in the spring se­mes­ter.

There’s no sin­gle cause be­hind the alarm­ing rise, but re­searchers say so­cial me­dia and in­for­ma­tion over­load are among the driv­ers of this trend.

New York re­cently passed a law re­quir­ing schools to teach men­tal well­ness in school.

But men­tal health is still shrouded in a cloud of stigma. One in five Amer­i­cans suf­fers from men­tal ill­ness and about half of chronic men­tal ill­nesses start by age 14, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Al­liance for Men­tal Ill­ness. Only half of the chil­dren with a men­tal health con­di­tion re­ceive help, and those rates are even lower among African Amer­i­cans, His­panic Amer­i­cans and Asian Amer­i­cans.

“I’ve talked to sur­vivor groups and par­ents of kids with men­tal ill­ness and I see my old mind­set: that it’s go­ing to be OK,” said Sellers.

Through Ris­ing Youth, a pre­ven­tive medicine and ed­u­ca­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion, Sellers wants to dis­pel some of myths and mis­con­cep­tions about men­tal ill­ness.

“The great thing about this pro­gram is that not only mid­dle and high school stu­dents will ben­e­fit from it, but also we and the un­der­grad­u­ates will ben­e­fit from it be­cause we learn how to en­gage with pa­tients and learn per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills,” said Sellers.

She and her team are de­vel­op­ing cur­ric­ula for eighth and ninth-graders, in which stu­dents learn about the nor­mal re­sponse to stress and com­mon stress man­age­ment tech­niques such as meditation. They learn how to rec­og­nize neg­a­tive thoughts and turn them into pos­i­tive ones. And they role-play to learn what to do if a peer goes to them with a men­tal health con­cern.

“Only 25 per­cent of peer con­fi­dants re­port a con­cern to an adult, and we want to fo­cus on giv­ing the peers the right tools to help,” said Sellers.

Her brother was in Thai­land when he took his life. Be­cause of cul­tural bar­ri­ers, he didn’t feel com­fort­able talk­ing to his fam­ily there. And Sellers still won­ders if she could have done some­thing.

“If I had talked to some­one, I wouldn’t have this guilt of not re­port­ing it. And more so, if I had gone to a men­tal health coun­selor, I would have known what words to say to him,” she said. “He was say­ing he had sui­ci­dal ideation, and I didn’t know to tell him that it’s hard but your life is worth liv­ing. I didn’t know how to re­spond to him. I ended up avoid­ing it.”

The team pre­sented their project at the Florida Blue com­pe­ti­tion and was ac­cepted as one of 12 fi­nal­ists. They didn’t win but re­ceived an hon­or­able men­tion. But Sellers is just get­ting started.

She and her class­mates will soon grad­u­ate but to sus­tain the pro­gram, they’re work­ing with Me­hta to make it an elec­tive for fourth-year med­i­cal stu­dents, so they too can go to lo­cal high schools and teach the pro­gram.

“My long-term vi­sion is to make a model of th­ese men­tal health ses­sions and ex­pand it to be­come an un­der­grad­u­ate or­ga­ni­za­tion with chap­ters that can go to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties,” said Sellers.

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