Kenny Baker was a brilliant young man from Plainsboro, New Jersey. Though he was born with dyslexia, he was an honors student. When tested at the age of six, he was found to have the long-term memory of a 29-year-old. He was a star swimmer on two swim teams. He had many friends, and was kind and respectful to all. Everybody loved Kenny.
But when he was suddenly diagnosed with depression at age 15, his world dropped out from under his feet. Within a year, he was further identified with a severe anxiety disorder. His illnesses prevented him from attending the local high school, so his friends drifted away. Kenny, embarrassed by his illness, told most people that he had mono for over three years. Some public educators did not understand his illness or the side affects of his medications. Many said cruel, hurtful things to him. They didn't understand that no one chooses to be mentally ill. No one can "just snap out of it."
Kenny bravely battled his illness and the stigma that accompanied it. He was compliant with doctors, following all forms of treatment. But always, Kenny was in emotional and physical pain. At the age of 19, just three weeks before his graduation from high school, the pain became too great. And on May 19, 2009, Kenny ended his pain and his life.
Kenny Baker's story isn't the exception. Believe it or not, one in four people is directly affected by mental illness. Among today's teenagers, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among college-age students and the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. More than 90 percent of these suicides result from a diagnosable mental disorder, but less than one third of individuals with mental illness receive treatment or medical attention each year.
As Michael Zappichi, Principal of Kenny's former high school, stated, "A lot of [students] equate their own self-worth with colleges they get into, or who makes athletic squads, even social strata. All of those things are part of two basic questions: Who am I, and what's my place?" It's the rare student that ever entirely answers those questions. Most don't, and that inability leaves them feeling out of place and confused. It's these emotions of frustration and dissatisfaction with oneself that contribute so strongly towards an individual's spiral into anxiety and depression.
The happiest, sprightliest person you know may be the one with the hidden illness. She may be the one who's too afraid of how people will react to tell the truth and seek help. She may not know who she can trust or who she can go to because she's "not supposed to" have that problem. The world has seen so many trapped by this situation, yet so few have acted to change society's mindset towards and abolish the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Kenny's family, through their new organization A.I.R (/www.attitudesinreverse.org" target="_hplink">www.attitudesinreverse.org" target="_hplink">Attitudes in Reverse), is helping lead our generation into a new era of Mental Health Awareness. A.I.R and similar organizations promote concepts of open forums for discussion and emotional bonding, the importance of community ties and the benefits one can receive from living with friendly domestic animals, such as dogs and cats. They intend to reduce the fear and apprehension that surrounds mental illness, and transform it into something youth and adults are comfortable discussing and confronting. They want to increase kindness and empathy, and reduce bullying towards those who do struggle. Through presentations to students, teachers, and government officials, as well as the continual expansion of high school chapters, Attitudes in Reverse and initiatives like it have been saving lives and gradually reaching more and more youth.
As a teenager who has seen loved ones and close friends battle mental illness and the difficulties and loneliness that accompanies it, I hope that our generation can recognize the value of initiatives like A.I.R and steadily, life by life, change the world and the way it thinks. Because just like air, mental illness is all around us -- just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not there.
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