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Weber Students Open Minds About Mental Illness

What started more than five years ago as an elective course called Democracy In Action at Carrie Weber Middle School in Port Washington has turned into an activist group of students whose lunchtime club, Students Speaking Loud and Proud, is raising awareness to fight the stigma of mental illnesses.  

“We believe that mental illness is the last civil rights area our nation needs to address,” says Linda Manzo, chairperson of the history department at Weber, who designed the course and teaches the class.

The club members represent the voices of students and young adults who are suffering with mental illnesses. On May 11, as they have done for the last five years, students participated in a walk sponsored by The National Alliance on Mental Illness. They raised in excess of $5000, but their efforts are more about education than fund raising.  

Through letter-writing to elected officials, posters and ice pop sales, participants try to foster discussion both in school and in the larger community. Their message is that mental illness is treatable and encompasses a variety of illnesses such as attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mild depression and schizophrenia.  

“Mass media often portray these illnesses in sensational ways,” says Manzo, “[They ignore] the fact that many people when properly treated can live full and productive lives with their mental illness in check, just as with any other illness.” Manzo and club members feel that there should be no shame attached to “coming out” about one’s mental illness.  With proper education, peers can be understanding, supportive and encouraging. Since mental illness affects one out of five children and teenagers in America, it has been the perfect movement for the Weber students to be involved in.  

The Weber group has also collected canned goods for homeless shelters in a campaign sponsored by Neil’s Wheels, a group founded in support of the wishes of Neil Barber, a star athlete at Manhasset High School before mental illness took over his life.  Neil’s dad, Greg Barber, speaks at local schools to raise awareness of mental illness.

Manzo, using the analogy of the country’s commitment to putting a man on the moon in the sixties, says we need a moon shot to the mind, “an all out effort in research and funding to enable our society to educate the public and treat mental illness providing the dignity and respect that all people in a democracy should have.”