Wilton student illuminates mental illness with LETS

Isabel Zayas, a junior at Wilton High School, greets people with a charming smile and a warm handshake, although on this day, she’s lacking her trademark bandana.

“I actually forgot that I’m not wearing it,” she said.

Isabel is the creator of a new student group called LETS, which stands for Let’s End the Stigma.

The group is part of a nationally known organization, which says on its website that it is “dedicated to erasing the shame, fear and isolation kids feel talking about personal problems and seeking help.”

Statistically, the organization says, “66% of young people with mental health issues do not seek the support they need. LETS inspires kids to get help before they are in crisis.”

“I had struggled with anxiety and depression,” Isabel said. “I didn’t feel that everyone in Wilton High School was receptive to people struggling with mental illness. Even teachers didn’t realize that it’s real. It’s not something you’re making up to get out of class.

“We’re trying to change the attitude towards people with mental illness in Wilton High School because it doesn’t help anyone. It’s just promoting ignorance and fear. It’s a form of discrimination.”

Isabel credits Eric Fischman, a psychologist at the high school, for helping to establish LETS.

“He’s one of the best people,” she said. “He gets it. He knows mental illness is real. I approached him because I knew he would be the best person for that.”

The club is still in a trial stage, having been active only since January. It has not received official status yet from the school administration, but Isabel is confident that that will be a formality.

The group currently has more than 30 members and attendance can average 10 to 15 per meeting, but Isabel is hoping to see it build into something she can watch grow through her senior year, and continue on after she leaves Wilton.

“It’s my baby,” she said with a smile.

A typical LETS meeting at Wilton High School is not group therapy, she said. Members check in to update their own personal stories and discuss how the stigma of mental illness is affecting them, if at all. It’s an opportunity to share and discuss all aspects of mental illness, including the medical impact.

Isabel’s own experience drove her to start LETS at Wilton High School. She says her family supported her in the process of getting her back to where she is driven for the club, her schoolwork, and a bright future.

“My family were 100% supportive of me,” she said. “There were some really dark points, but I think what’s important to take away from that is that I got out of it.”

While mental illness came to light after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, Isabel says looking deeper into anxiety is necessary.

“I know so many people who have social anxiety or test anxiety, or just anxiety in general,” she said. “Nobody acknowledges that.

“People don’t recognize that it’s real. They’ll say,‘Oh, you’re just nervous. Or you’re taking things too seriously. You need to stop worrying.’ You wouldn’t say that to someone who has cancer.”

Among the goals for the club is to stop the name calling that goes on. It has long been acceptable to use terms like “crazy,” “weird,” and “psycho,” but Isabel feels that only deepens the problem.

“That’s only pushing them deeper into that hole that they’re already in,” she said.

The overall goal is to make Wilton High School a better place.

“I’m not content with the social piece,” she says. “Some teachers need to be educated on mental illness. I think some kids are in a bubble, because nothing’s ever touched them and nothing has ever hurt them. So when someone says they’re depressed, they don’t know what to do.”

Education is desperately needed, she added.

If a person says she is depressed, Isabel stresses, it is necessary to inquire if she’s been to a doctor. Then check to see if she has spoken with a therapist or her parents.

Worse, she said, if there’s a hint of suicide, the concern must be stepped up.

“The first thing is to ask is if I can tell their parents,” she said. “If they say no, then you do it anyway. If they say they’re going to kill themselves right now, you call 911. Because if your friend is dead, they can’t be mad at you.”

Isabel has her senior year to look forward to and says she will go to college with an eye toward majoring in public policy and psychology.

She isn’t completely consumed by the club though. Isabel also has a small photography business, with a Facebook page called Isabel Zayas Photography. She also loves her cats, enjoys writing what she calls “floaty nonfiction” and appreciates a good cup of coffee.

“I care so much about helping other people though,” she says, turning her attention back to LETS.

“I’m really glad we started it, but we have a long way to go. I think it’s possible to change the stigma.

“Hopefully I’ll leave a little mark on Wilton. In a good way.”