SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — One in four Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This week’s Jefferson Award winner is helping raise awareness and empathy about mental health problems.

More than 300 teenagers gathered in San Francisco to open up about a topic many find difficult to discuss at home.

Just ask Tiffany Nguyen.

“I just didn’t really know how to talk about my emotions. I didn’t know how to manage the stress of going to a very competitive high school, of growing up with a lot of anxiety and body image issues,” she said.

Nguyen found support and a path to therapy through Bring Change to Mind, the 9-year-old San Francisco-based nonprofit that was co-founded by actress Glenn Close.

Executive director Pamela Harrington says it works to eliminate the stigma of mental illness.

“People can now, with empathy and understanding, see that mental illness is an illness. It needs to be treated,” Harrington said. Harrington is helping teenagers talk about mental illness and provide peer support in 260 high school clubs nationwide.

They’re paid for through annual star-studded fundraisers in San Francisco and New York.

With guidance from the nonprofit, the student-led clubs have served 10,000 students in 18 states.

“We will save lives through their empathy and compassion,” Harrington declared.

And many students want to continue to bring change after high school. Six out of ten club alumni told the nonprofit they may pursue careers in mental health fields.

Like Hannah Deng, who battled anxiety and depression.

“After I tried to commit suicide, ended up in the hospital, dropped out of school, I didn’t even think I was going to go to college,” Deng said.

Deng is so thankful for the support from her Bring Change to Mind high school club that she now leads the group on her high school campus.

“I think my whole life changed,” she smiled.

Other students’ lives have changed, too, and they’re grateful for Harrington’s leadership.

“She takes our issues and our concerns as her own,” Nguyen said.

“We’re all in this together. And if someone is struggling, then you’ve got to ask for help,” Harrington explained.

So for opening new doors to mental health education and healing, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Pamela Harrington.

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