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Editorial: Breaking the silence on mental illness

“I’m Hanna Hall, a 5’3” Division I point guard from the University at Buffalo, and I struggle with mental illness every day.”

With those words, the UB basketball star, who helped the Bulls win the Mid-American Conference championship this past season, turned herself into a hero for mental health advocates. Hall released a video this past week, through the NCAA, in which she discussed her battle with the eating disorder anorexia.

Hall’s courage in going public makes her a shining example for a local effort called the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, which seeks to get people talking about mental health challenges. Their campaign, at LetsTalkStigma.org, is encouraging everyone to take an online pledge to speak out against stigmatizing mental health and to share their stories.

Hall’s video was timed to coordinate with National Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in May. Hall, a rising junior, says she began increasing the intensity of her basketball training in her freshman year, working out three times a day. She was trying to stay competitive, but her coach, Felisha Legette-Jack, noticed that something about her player didn’t seem right. She sent her to a psychologist, who diagnosed her anorexia, which WebMD describes as a potentially life-threatening eating disorder that is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.

“The disorder had taken over my life and had a mind of its own,” Hall says.

Hall persevered through her sophomore season, where she was successful on the court while trying to cope with her disease.

“We are taught that mental illness is mental weakness and that great athletes cannot be mentally weak,” she says.

She learned to share details of her struggle with teammates and to lean on them for support. Hall says she has found acceptance that enables her to love herself.

“For so long mental health has been such an uncomfortable conversation,” she says. “The stigma has to end.”

That’s the message promoted by the Anti-Stigma Coalition, a collaboration between the Erie County Department of Mental Health and 15 other founding partners. They have a particular focus on at-risk groups such as adolescents, middle-aged white men and veterans, who often are reluctant to seek help.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness reported on a 2016 study that found 12.8% of U.S. adolescents had “at least one major depressive episode,” an increase from previous years. The anti-stigma coalition says while the numbers are concerning, they also reflect a positive fact in that more young people are speaking up about their challenges and asking for help. The coalition has a campaign called Join the Conversation, to get more kids talking about mental health.

Depresssion and other mental illnesses are nothing new, but today’s middle school and high school students face pressures that did not affect previous generations. Some are a product of social media, such as cyberbullying or “fear of missing out” when watching peers depict their social lives on Instagram. Teen suicide is sometimes glorified in online venues, and can inspire kids to take their own lives.

LetsTalkStigma.org has a list of resources for adolescents dealing with mental health concerns, including a link to Crisis Services of Erie County and Mental Health Advocates of WNY.

Sunday’s Buffalo News includes a mental health awareness supplement called Your Path to Hope. Michael Ranney, commissioner of Erie County’s Department of Mental Health, says in the section that the county reflects national statistics showing that one in five adults experience a mental illness each year, while less than 40 percent seek care.

The video by Hanna Hall, which can be viewed below, could inspire thousands of conversations about mental health, with its uplifting message.

“This disorder is still a huge part of me,” she says of her anorexia. “The difference is, now it’s a part of me that I can actually be proud of.”

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