Following a devastating tragedy, one Plainsboro, N.J. family turned their grief into outreach for young adults with mental illness. Their organization, Attitudes in Reverse (AIR), is one of the only organizations in the U.S. that focuses on educating this at-risk demographic.
Kenny Baker was 15 when he was diagnosed with depression and he struggled for years to hide his illness and continue to live an outwardly normal life. In May 2009, he committed suicide to escape the pain, embarrassment and discrimination of living with depression and an anxiety disorder.
His grieving family searched for a way to increase awareness about mental illness, especially amongst teens. Kenny’s sister, Katelyn, initially came up with the idea of creating an organization whose goal was to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness through education.
“No one has to go through what Kenny struggled with. No one should be afraid or embarrassed. Our mission is educating young people about good mental health and suicide prevention,” Tricia Baker, Kenny’s mom, told FoxNews.com.
According to a study by Harvard Medical School, over 25 percent of adults suffer from mental disorders and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. AIR primarily targets the teenage population so they can understand signs of mental illness and know where to go if help is needed.
The non-profit organization travels to middle and high schools to give presentations, humanize mental illness and increase empathy. To date, over 14,000 students have participated in AIR presentations in New York, New Jersey and Vermont.
In 2013, AIR launched their “In Their Shoes” exhibit. Comprised of 233 pairs of shoes, the exhibit is a visual representation of the 233 New Jersey youth, ages 10 through 24, who committed suicide between 2010 and 2012.
The acronym AIR was chosen to draw a parallel between mental illness and air.
“Just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s all around us,” Baker explained.
AIR also incorporates dogs into presentations and events to provide emotional support and to serve as an icebreaker.
The organization was a 2013 L’Oreal Woman of Worth honoree and has received several awards, including the Golden Bell Leadership Award and the Inspiring and Innovative Partners Award.
“Ultimately, our goal is to reach every student in America from middle school though college and educate them in the importance of good mental health and suicide prevention so they know what to do if they or their friends are struggling,” Kurtis Baker, Kenny’s dad, told FoxNews.com
The Baker family hopes that through destigmatizing mental disorders and increasing awareness, more people will receive the help they need.