Rising Up: Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Suffering in Silence
Lili - Maryland

“2 kids lost to Montgomery Co. murder-suicide1

“2 teen students commit suicide within last two weeks” 2

“Grieving Northwood family says bullying drove their son to suicide3


I’ve been reading these local headlines for years. Sadness is always my first emotion, but that eventually gives way to frustration, fear and finally anger. I wonder “Why? What could have been done to prevent this?” These headlines came to mind when the staff of LearnServe International, a social entrepreneurship program, asked me “What pisses you off?” My answer: if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we stop kids from killing themselves and hurting each other?

I’m Asian American, born in America, but raised with Asian values and traditions. We are taught to be stoic, to sweep things under the rug, and that everything we do reflects not just on us, but on our entire family. As a result, Asian American teens struggle with mental illness in silence on a daily basis, never getting help for fear of being judged. The societal stigma for Asian Americans is so prevalent that “suicide death rates are 30 percent higher for 15-24 year old Asian American females than they are for white females.” 4 The situation is further exacerbated when teens, in general, don’t have a general understanding of mental health issues and the stigma that surround them. The average delay between initial symptoms and intervention is around 8-10 years, which is heavily impacted by the fact that students cannot correctly identify and define mental illness symptoms. 5

For a lot of us students, most of what we know about this complex topic is vague and comes from outdated lessons in health class. The stigma that surrounds mental illness has been around for years, and one key factor that contributes to it is the way that it is taught in school. Rather than taking what they teach and applying it to real-world situations, teachers simply lecture us on the topic. We therefore disengage and are not able to take away much information from these lectures. In many situations, these lectures come too late, as a lot of us are already struggling with mental health issues and do not know it and/or will not talk about it, thus continuing the vicious cycle of suffering in silence.

To address these issues, I have created Rising Up, a program that raises awareness about mental illness and de-stigmatizes it through workshops. Our workshops are educating students about mental health through workshops that include a presentation and then interactive activities where students apply what they learn through various skits, card games, or team challenges. While our workshops are predominantly student-led, we work with a counselor who provides us with resources for our curriculum and reviews all our content for accuracy before we present it to our students. One of our tenets is to show students that a mental illness is no different from a physical illness, and it should be treated as such. We want to create a safe environment where students can interactively learn about mental health from their peers, rather than just looking information up on the internet. Three factors differentiate our program from others: (1) workshops are peer-led, (2) workshops are limited to a maximum of 10 students, and (3) our target audience is middle school students.

A 2017 Michigan State University study found college students earned a higher grade when actors posing as peers (instead of an instructor) explained the importance of the class material.6 For this reason, our workshops are student-led, as it fosters better peer-to-peer discussion. When students are able to talk and learn from each other, we are breaking down the communication barriers of mental illness stigma. Most of the time, students don’t speak up as they are afraid of the negative labels and connotations that come with being associated with a mental illness. Knowing that others have experienced what we are experiencing is comforting, as it shows that we are not alone. Opening up the conversation about these taboo topics can show students that mental illnesses are common in society, thus helping them overcome the stigma and speak up to get help.

Our workshops have a limit of 10 students in order to create an intimate, safe environment where students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and asking questions. A small group allows for more individualized attention where students feel heard and feel like their opinions matter. It ultimately creates a sense of community and understanding and provides the support that many are reticent to seek.

Early adolescence (approximately ages 11-14), once labeled as the period of “storm and stress”, is marked by multiple changes at multiple levels, from puberty, to the emergence of sexuality, to changing schools. The most important cognitive change is the ability to think abstractly. 7 It is for these reasons that our target audience is middle school students. Students at this age are curious about their mental health and soak up information like a sponge. They want to learn about mental health as it is something they haven’t had much exposure to.

Hopefully, as students learn about these symptoms at a younger age, they will be able to grow up more aware of their mental health, allowing them to open up if they feel like they have a mental illness.

As a proof of concept, we have held three sessions of our mental health workshop with 20 total attendees. These workshops have been very successful, as more than 90% of our attendees have reported that they learned something new. As a matter of fact, one of our students wrote back to us saying that “...[our] program was better than what the counselors presented to [them] in school because [we] were more interactive.” From these initial workshops, we have learned that students learn best interactively. They enjoyed creating fun skits where they can apply their knowledge, even while talking about heavy topics.

We have been able to raise $400 through LearnServe International to run our program. We are using those funds to plan and hold upcoming workshops. Our next workshop is in June and it will focus on stress and anger management. We are also planning a summer program with three workshops for incoming sixth graders where they can learn about their mental health and become aware of the signs of mental illnesses before they start middle school.

Another goal is to expand to an independent location as our workshops are currently being held at my house. They will be held here for our next few workshops as we find another location that holds the same intimacy and comfortability levels as a home.

Rising Up is currently only available to students in my community, specifically the middle school I went to and one nearby. Through an Incubation Program, I hope to expand to more schools in Montgomery County, then to schools around Maryland, and ultimately nationwide.

Mental illness stigma will persist as long as there is a lack of targeted education. While this is a big problem to tackle, I believe that Rising Up can break the vicious cycle of suffering in silence for our most at-risk students.


  1. Basch, Michelle. "2 Kids Lost to Montgomery Co. Murder-suicide Remembered at Vigil." WTOP. September 29, 2018. Accessed May 29, 2019.
  2. "2 Teens Commit Suicide within Last Two Weeks in Montgomery County." WJLA. December 6, 2017. Accessed May 29, 2019.
  3. Schneider, Jeremy. "Grieving Northwood Family Says Bullying Drove Their Son to Suicide." Toledo Blade. January 19, 2019. Accessed May 29, 2019.
  4. "Asian American/Pacific Islander Communities and Mental Health." Mental Health America. June 30, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2019.
  5. "Mental Health By the Numbers," NAMI, , accessed May 29, 2019.
  6. 6. Shin, Tae S., John Ranellucci, and Cary J. Roseth. "Effects of Peer and Instructor Rationales on Online Students’ Motivation and Achievement." International Journal of Educational Research 82 (2017): 184-99. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2017.02.001.
  7. Eccles, Jacquelynne S. "The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14." The Future of Children 9, no. 2 (February 1999): 30-44. doi:10.2307/1602703.