It’s not easy for Jennifer Scheafer to talk about her mental illness — how it led to suicide attempts and drug addiction and nearly prevented her from graduating high school.

“I’d like to help you understand what I went through and what someone else could be going through,” she told students at Senior High on Wednesday.

Scheafer and her mom, Sheryl, spoke as part of Ending the Silence, a program organized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness that’s aimed at shedding light on mental illness and combating stigma.

About 20 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds will experience a mental illness — from anxiety to schizophrenia — and about half of them go undiagnosed. Untreated mental illness has been identified as a major driver of Montana’s astronomical suicide rates.

“They’re afraid of what someone’s going to think or someone’s going to say,” said Scheafer.

Sheryl Scheafer, who's on the NAMI board and is the advocacy chair for the Yellowstone Valley PTA Council, also has suffered from depression — something that many people around her didn’t know. She recently spoke about her experience at her church.

“People were looking at me like, 'You’re not homeless, you’re not crazy,'” she said.

There are also many smaller daily battles with mental illness that can fly below the radar in discussions about issues like suicide.

“My anxiety makes me fight myself every single morning to get up and go to work,” Jennifer Scheafer said. She makes a series of small goals each day, stringing them together. And she “lives by” her medication, taking it religiously.

Friends and family can be essential for seeking medical help.

“The person with mental illness may not know this is happening to them,” Sheryl Scheafer said.

Jennifer Sheafer didn’t.

“If I thought the sky was purple, you couldn’t tell me any different,” she said. She’d skip school, disappear from home for days. She started drinking and using drugs at age 14.

She developed two groups of friends: one that revolved around her dangerous behaviors and another peer group at school, where she was capable of being a model student when in good health.

Her fight with mental illness left her on the cusp of not graduating — she didn’t know until “3:02” p.m. on her last day of school that she made it through.

It wasn’t a finish line; she continued to struggle with mental illness, but she’s made progress. She’s been sober from drugs for more than three years.

At one point in high school, she had one of her friends tell her, “I don’t know how to help you.”

The best way, she said, is just “to be a friend and support them.” That support includes some tough love and persistence, guiding someone struggling with mental illness toward health resources.

When the duo asked if any of the students listening knew someone with mental illness, more than half stood up.

Addressing mental illness has been a focus for School District 2 recently: the district added a resource coordination position to help connect families with help, and has added specialty counselors. Nationwide, schools provide more mental health services than any other outlet.

Sharing their story in front of the group was a bit daunting, Sheryl Scheafer said, but worth it.

“If somebody would have talked to me, maybe I would’ve gotten help a lot sooner,” she said.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.