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Alexis Wilson had a psychotic break at age 15 and no one knew.

She heard voices, often what she thought were other students calling her names, and for years engaged in what she now knows was behavior provoked by cues and fictions created in her head.

Her parents at first thought she was rebelling and acting out, though they later tried to push her into therapy, which was too late to forestall hospitalization but ultimately helped with her continuing recovery.

Oscar Guzm? was just 16 when he vowed to take his own life once he reached the age of 20.

He was shy, depressed and suffered in silence so complete that his family was totally unprepared when he disappeared one day, and the hospital called to say he had tried to end his life.

Guzm? remembers waking up and having a nurse ask what happened.

"I had been holding this in for years," he recalled. "I just said, &‘I don't want to live,' and just started crying.

"But honestly, that was the beginning of the healing," Guzm? said.

Now in their 20s, Wilson and Guzm? are part of a team of four young adults who have agreed to share their stories with Sonoma County high school students as part of an effort to educate teens about depression and other mental illnesses, and to reach out to those who may need help.

The discussion includes an effort to distinguish between normal sadness and the persistent feelings of hopelessness that may signal a serious problem.

Presenters distribute literature and phone numbers students can use to find help if they're contemplating suicide or having other symptoms of serious depression.

And they provide statistics that make it clear those who might need help are not weak or alone in their pain.

"It was helpful, a lot of information," Windsor Oaks Academy student Gloria Alvarez, 18, said after seeing Wilson and Guzm? talk to her class. "People don't always really talk about depression."

Experts say about one in four adults in the United States suffers from a mental disorder or illness in a given year.

Many have their first experiences with it as teens or young adults, when it may be difficult to distinguish teen-age angst from severe disturbances, and before they have the education or life experience to understand what's going on.

Wilson, 27, said she thinks she had symptoms as early as 12 or 13 but did not recognize them.

"I had no clue what mental illness was," said Guzm?, 29, who, though born to Mexican parents, has albinism that makes him pale and fair-haired, and also impairs his sight.

Now coordinator of client programs for the Sonoma County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and a psychology student at Santa Rosa Junior College, he said he withdrew socially as a teen, never thinking he was good enough.

But mental health providers are increasingly trying to reach young people with information and assurances that help is available.

Talking to students last week, Guzman said: "My hope is, when I do this kind of stuff, that you can talk to your friends so they can avoid, so they can live happy lives."

The NAMI panel has given presentations to 11 mostly health classes in Cloverdale and Windsor since October at schools with active Project Success programs run by community-based organizations and aimed at helping students and families through high stress and stages of high-risk behavior.

Teddy Pierce, who coordinates the program for NAMI, said students so far have been extremely attentive.

"We've had 90-minute classes where nobody moved," she said.

Students also have an opportunity to submit questions anonymously and to receive information directing them toward help.

In at least one case, a student said after a recent presentation that she'd been considering suicide but was rethinking that after hearing what the NAMI panel had to say, Pierce said.

Wilson, an artist who credits her ability to find humor in life with helping her survive so far, said it helped tremendously to learn about brain chemistry and the fact that mental illness is not a sign of personal deficiency but a medical disease.

"It was hard for me to have compassion for myself and for people to have compassion for me without the understanding that I was sick," she said.

Sharing her story, Wilson said, "is healing for me."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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