CAPE ELIZABETH — More than 14 years after the death of her son Timmy, Nancy Thompson said she wishes she had known about the warning signs of mental illness.

Awareness is part of what she and her husband, Tim, hope to teach through the Thompson Mental Health Initiative in collaboration with the Cape Elizabeth schools and the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation.

As part of the initiative, Cape Elizabeth Middle School aims to create a school community that, according to school nurse Jill Young, “recognizes the importance of mental wellness and embraces the opportunity to create a foundation of advocacy, education and awareness.”

The theme for this year’s initiative is “You Will Be Found … @CEMS.”

Young said the initiative will be carried out throughout the school year and beyond, meeting and supporting students’ various needs.

“Our hope is to empower … students, staff, and parents to be proactive and confident in caring for (them)selves and others, provide tools and tips for improving mental health, introduce health resources in or near our school community, and decrease stigma around mental health,” Young said.

“You Will Be Found …” launched during Suicide Awareness Week, Sept. 9-15, with a community discussion at the middle school led by a panel of experts, followed by a school day devoted to raising awareness and ending the stigma associated with mental health and wellness.

Students in grades 5 through 8 sat quietly through the assembly as they heard testimony from members of the community who have dealt with anxiety or depression, or know someone who has. 

The Thompsons held a photo of Timmy, who graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School in 2004 and died by suicide a month later. The couple has been outspoken about their son’s story, with the hope “his death would not be in vain.”

Nancy Thompson told the story of Timmy’s “disease of the mind … called depression” and encouraged students to have conversations with a trusted adult “if they’re feeling any symptoms of depression.” 

“Timmy Thompson took his life as a result of a depression that came on so suddenly,” she said. “… One minute he was on top of the world graduating from Cape Elizabeth High School … the next he was gone.

“… It’s amazing how much I’ve learned since the death of Timmy,” she continued. “(He) gives me courage every day to speak about this.”

Cape Elizabeth High School seniors Lilli Frame and Alison Ingalls also shared their experiences with mental illness.

Ingalls said while she was dealing with symptoms of depression and anxiety last year, she realized what she feared most wasn’t the “dark place she was in,” but what her family, friends and community would think of her.

“Instead of reaching out for the help I so desperately needed, I put on a mask,” she said. “We’ve created this stigma where it’s acceptable to ask for help when you’re physically ill, but (not) when you’re mind is ill.”

Frame encouraged the younger students to ask for help if they experience any feelings of depression. 

“Asking for help does not make you weak,” she said. 

“When you start the conversation, others will follow,” Ingalls added. 

Erica Packer and Elizabeth Riegert of NoStigmas, a global nonprofit that aims to eliminate the silence, solitude and stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, also spoke to students during the assembly.

Following the presentations, Packer and Riegert met with classes and talked to students during lunch about mental health awareness and what they do to cope with mental illness.

“It’s OK not to feel OK,” Riegert said. “And it’s OK to talk about it.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

When, how to get help

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents include excessive worrying or fear, prolonged sadness, irritability or anger, confusion or problems concentrating, and extreme mood swings. 

NoStigmas offers Ally Training, which promotes self care, peer support and advocacy, but is not crisis intervention. If you’re in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, contact local emergency services or the Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800-273-TALK.

NoStigmas also doesn’t offer counseling or other direct services. If you need assistance finding psychological or other community services, check their resources directory.

Cape Elizabeth High School senior Allison Ingalls speaks about mental health and awareness with middle school students during their lunch time Sept. 14.