East High School’s new Raise Your Voice Club is designed to raise awareness of mental illness and to help fight the stigma that surrounds it, as well as to be a safe place for teens with mental illness and their advocates.

The East club started meeting in March biweekly during the lunch hour and has about 10 to 15 members.

A Raise Your Voice Club also has been running at West High School.

“I’m really interested in mental health (issues) because I’ve had friends who have struggled,” said member Marin Cohan, a freshman. “If I know more, I can help more.”

The local Raise Your Voice Clubs sprang from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Wisconsin receiving a donation a few years ago to help develop a program to empower youth to be their own advocates, said Nate Schorr, executive director of NAMI Wisconsin. It provides resources and guidance and trained the clubs’ facilitators.

The East club put together a team for the Out of the Darkness Campus Walk, which was held in April to acknowledge the ways in which suicide and mental illness have affected lives.

They also listened to a panel of six East teachers who talked about their experiences with mental illness and the stigma surrounding it.

In May, club members observed Mental Health Awareness Month by creating and putting up posters around the school about mental illness awareness and support. They also put up green paper ribbons to promote mental health awareness. The materials will remain up until the end of the school year.

The club also kicked off the green bandana project based on what was done by the campus-based NAMI-UW Madison. Students have tied green bandanas to their backpacks and some teachers put the bandanas up in their room to signal they are a safe person to approach about mental health-related issues.

East senior Miranda Murphy said she was surprised by some of the statistics related to mental illness that were presented at one of the club meetings, including how many people struggle with it.

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Max Blaska, an advocate for the Dane County affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, spearheaded the start of the club at East and is a co-facilitator with three NAMI-UW Madison members: Samantha Powell, Sophie Smith and Kate Willeford, who will be juniors at UW-Madison this fall.

Blaska enlisted the help of Jason Kempen, who is the school facilitator and has been teaching Spanish at East, whom he knew from the church they attend. Blaska, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Edgewood and wants to eventually get a master’s in drama therapy, also hopes to start a club at Memorial High School, where he is a graduate.

“I have been struggling with severe depression and anxiety all of my life and I wish that there had been a group like this when I was a teen,” Blaska said.

East also is looking for a new adviser since Kempen is not returning to teach at the school next year. Kempen said he sees the need for such a club because many students suffer from anxiety and depression and others suffer from eating disorders.

“You can see kids hurting … We as teachers are not equipped to help students with all of the mental health issues they bring to class,” said. “(The club) is not a support group. But it is a place where we support each other.”

In addition, students in the club help fight the stigma and help educate the school about mental health issues, Kempen said.

Blaska, who received NAMI Dane County’s Youth Voice award in April for his work in the Ending the Silence program and other initiatives, said his passion has led to him planning a benefit for Raise Your Voice Clubs in Madison in October for Mental Illness Awareness Week.

It would feature comedians, poets, musicians and filmmakers who have fought mental illness telling their stories, particularly from when they were young, through the performing arts.

To learn more about the event, view a YouTube video created by Blaska at youtu.be/vFeIs8b_5Cwstories.

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