Teenager Kendall Reitz set out to become an advocate for improved mental illness awareness in the aftermath of last year's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., when a disturbed 20-year-old named Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults.
As horrific as the crime was, Kendall felt news coverage of that mass shooting and others fed false notions that people with mental illness tend to be violent.
"It's just way blown out of proportion," she said. "That really creates stigma where if you have mental illness, you don't want to talk about it."
For her it's personal: Early last year she was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, and she said she's noticed a degree of confusion and discomfort from friends when she's talked to them about it.
So in the months after Newtown, Kendall, who is 17 and lives in Owings Mills, took action. She helped launch a mental illness awareness club at the private Bryn Mawr School, where she is a senior. She organized a team to walk in a suicide prevention march. She began volunteering at a Baltimore nonprofit group called I Am Not Crazy, swiftly elevating its social media profile.
Advocates have long tried to counter public perceptions linking mental illness and violence. After a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, the National Alliance on Mental Illness cited a U.S. Surgeon General report that found "the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small."
"As a general rule of thumb, people with psychiatric conditions, when effectively treated, are no more violent than the regular population," said Dr. Robert Findling, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, in a recent interview.
Findling called Kendall's advocacy "marvelous."
"The notion of stigma associated with these kinds of things is so profound, so pronounced," he said. "In many ways, although we've come a long way over the years, there's still a lot of work to be done. People do not think of these kinds of things the way they think of other kinds of medical conditions."
Kendall said she felt she could add her voice to this discussion in a meaningful way: "If I can make one person realize it's not shameful to have a mental illness, maybe they'll start talking and make another person realize it's not shameful."
The school supports her efforts and those of others involved with the club, said Vicki Mermelstein, the Bryn Mawr counselor who serves as the group's adviser.
"Anytime we educate our girls about this, it's really helpful," she said. "They really do want to help get the word out, break down the stigma."
In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Month, Kendall created a display that put the phrase "Reasons to Live" on a school window and invited students to leave positive notes. Next month, she will address Bryn Mawr's high school students at a convocation on mental-illness awareness.
Her efforts have also extended beyond the school's North Baltimore campus. A few months ago, she contacted Jared Wilmer, founder of I Am Not Crazy. He brought her on as an intern, putting her in charge of the group's Instagram account and Tumblr blog site. "Immediately she just ran with it," Wilmer said.
On Tumblr she posted a cartoon she'd found that shows two jars. One solicits money for kidney treatment and overflows with cash; the other seeks donations for psychiatric care and is empty.
Below it she asked: "Do you think that this cartoon accurately depicts the stigma against the mentally ill in society today?" Her post got 30,000 "reposts" in 48 hours, Wilmer said, "way beyond any response I had ever gotten."
Kendall also assisted with a video project that asked random people downtown what share of violent crime they thought was committed by people with mental illness. Some guessed it was low, but others put it as high as 80 percent. "What if we told you it was 3 to 5 percent?" read a slide in the video.
Wilmer said although mental illness has often appeared to be a factor in mass shootings, reporters seem to jump to that conclusion. And he said there's too little coverage of "mental health recovery and how tons of people in the community that have diagnosed illness are extremely successful."
Kendall's parents aren't surprised by her budding advocacy. "When she really, really believes in something, there is no changing her mind," said her mother, Yvonne Tanner.
Her father, Ernest Reitz, said he and his wife have urged their children to try their best to overcome obstacles. Of Kendall, he said: "She's just very passionate. She wants to leave her mark. What parent couldn't be proud of that?"
Kendall said "I have been OCD my entire life," but her diagnosis didn't come until her sophomore year. A gall bladder ailment turned her into an extreme germaphobe, she and her parents say. Just breathing while in a school hallway could make her anxious, and she had trouble sleeping.
Today Kendall said she's doing much better. She believes she's stronger because of her experience and has decided to explore it in her college applications. Her career goal is to become a psychopathologist, studying mental illness and looking for new ways to help people.
Even during the depths of her OCD struggle, she could envision a brighter day, as seen in a short poem she wrote at the time:
Darkness turns to light
Anxieties take flight
White clouds reveal the sun
This battle has been won.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun