Reaching Out Campaign club officers (from left to right) Evan Candelmo, Lauren Perry, Jeffrey Cirillo and Caitlin Piemme Credit: Aaron Kraut

A group of Walter Johnson High School students think the health class all Montgomery County Public Schools students are required to take should include a more in-depth curriculum when it comes to suicide, depression and other mental health issues.

Walter Johnson junior Jeffrey Cirillo and three friends started the “Reaching Out Campaign” earlier this year, not long after 15-year-old classmate Noah Marks committed suicide on New Year’s Day.

Cirillo said the issue had been on his mind since taking an advanced psychology course, but that Marks’ death was a major factor in starting an official school club called Walter Johnson ROC (Reaching Out Campaign) to advocate for changes.

“It was very hard, because it didn’t need to happen,” Cirillo said of Marks’ suicide.

Cirillo testified before the county Board of Education last month about the need to expand mental health education and incorporate more comprehensive discussions about suicide and depression.

“Many of us have noticed the curriculum on that kind of issue is very feeble and we think there’s a lack of understanding and empathy,” Cirillo said, “which could create a dangerous situation.”

Caitlin Piemme, a junior at the school and club officer who was a close friend of Marks, said she felt the need to do something after his suicide.

She thought back to her experience in health class, which is a semester-long course traditionally taught to sophomores—though all Montgomery County Public School students are required to take the class before they graduate.

“We spent about a day on mental health. I don’t even remember what we learned, except for the five red-flag signs of someone who could be depressed,” Piemme said. “It didn’t really seem like there was a lot of content involved.”

The high school version of the class, which can also be taken as a three-week online summer course, includes lessons on alcohol and drugs, family life and sexuality and disease prevention and control.

Walter Johnson Principal Jennifer Baker said she agrees that there should be more emphasis on mental health education in county schools and she thinks school board members who listened to Cirillo speak  May 26 are open to examining the issue.

“It depends on what resources are available. They definitely would have to think about what they would take out [of the existing curriculum],” Baker said. “I think that Jeffrey’s right on track. I think he’s highlighting a need. I think it’s neat that it’s from the perspective of students who are immersed in learning right now.”

Starting next school year, Baker said Walter Johnson will likely start partnering with Sources of Strength, a national organization that trains students and adult advisers to lead discussions and social media projects aimed at suicide prevention.

Cirillo said almost 60 students attended the first meeting of the Walter Johnson ROC club. He’s been talking with representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other groups to help formalize an action plan going forward.

Eric Guerci, the recently elected student member of the board of education, has told Cirillo he plans to work on the mental health education issue during next school year.

“The fact that we spend one day on mental health and just got so little information, it kind of appalled me,” club officer and junior Lauren Perry said. “Any improvements would be amazing to see.”

An estimated one in five teens ages 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Besides helping those teens, the club hopes the Reaching Out Campaign can educate others in a way that reduces the stigma around mental illness.

“Some people are ignorant toward it,” Piemme said. “You’ll hear people say, ‘I’m so depressed. I got an E on my quiz.’ We want to make sure people are just more aware and can help their friends.”