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