The trio of young women clasped their hands, bowed their heads and prayed before taking center stage as one of the closing acts of the three-day Montana State Conference on Mental Illness in Billings.
One is a 17-year-old flutist in the Helena High School Band and member of the National Honor Society.
One is a 16-year-old singer, dancer and cheerleader.
One is a 17-year-old rock climber and No. 1 doubles varsity tennis player.
And, each has a mental illness.
“When you look at us you would not think of us as mentally ill,” said Kelsey Antcliff, a senior at Helena High School. “The stereotypes people have in their minds of mental illness are scary. The toilet is our therapist at school because we have no place to go. Kids like us feel so alone.”
Each of their specific diagnoses is not important. Suffice it to say that among them they are being professionally treated for clinical depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The motivation behind their multimedia presentation Friday to an estimated 300 people was to help erase the stigma attached to mental illness and help eliminate bullying. Their plea to parents, coaches, social workers and classmates is to care, to listen and to ask questions.
“My depression started to get worse and I felt no one cared,” Antcliff said. “Support us and love us no matter what.”
One in 10 youths is reported to have a severe mental illness, according to the National Alliance for Mental Health. One in four is reported to have a general mental illness.
Some of the girls have attempted suicide; some have turned to self-injury, specifically cutting their bodies to the point of bleeding. The goal was to stop the pain, which sometimes stemmed from being called retarded, psycho and crazy at school.
“That hurts us, too,” said Alex Bostrom, a senior at Helena High School. “We’re the kids who don’t get noticed. We put on a happy face during the day at school then go home at night and cry ourselves to sleep.”
Kandis Franklin, family liaison for the Children’s Mental Health Bureau, said the teens were doing what would terrify some adults — talking candidly about their mental illness. She then acknowledged that Kelsey Antcliff is her daughter.
“It makes my heart glow watching her,” Franklin said.
Mental health problems are real, painful and can be severe, said Brianna Boje, a junior at Helena High School. The most hurtful thing you can say to someone with a mental illness is to “get over it,” she said. “So many people think I can just snap out of it. You don’t choose this life. If I could get rid of this mental illness I would in the blink of an eye.”
Mental illness can lead to failure in school, loss of friends and family conflict. If you are a parent or other caregiver of a teenager, pay attention if your teen often:
• Is angry, cries a lot, or overreacts.
• Expresses feeling of worthlessness or guilt.
• Seems more anxious or worried than other young people.
• Grieves for a long time after a loss or death.
• Is frequently fearful or has unexplained fears.
• Is constantly concerned about physical problems or appearance.
• Seems frightened that his or her mind is controlled or is out of control.
“Don’t be ashamed of your mental illness,” said Boje. “I’m not ashamed of my mental illness. I’m very open about it. It’s a piece of me. It doesn’t define me but it’s a huge part of me and my life.”
Contact Cindy Uken at email@example.com or 657-1287.