What is AIR™?
AIR™ stands for Attitudes in Reverse®. Mental illness is like air: Just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s all around us.
AIR was founded in 2010 as part of the Everybody Loves Kenny Project, Inc. The term was coined, along with the analogy noted above, by Katelyn Baker in response to the death of her brother, Kenny, by suicide on May 19, 2009 and the discrimination she and her parents, Tricia and Kurt, faced immediately following Kenny’s death. AIR’s goal is to start conversations about mental health issues because the best suicide prevention program is a good mental health awareness program. Education is critical to build awareness, as well as to eliminate stigma against mental health disorders and individuals who have them. In fact, the AIR name and analogy, and their potential for eliminating stigma, attracted the attention of the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma, which presented an Ambassador Award to Katelyn in 2010.
AIR targets youth and young adults in middle and high schools, colleges and universities, who commonly experience confusion, stress, peer pressure and school pressure, making them vulnerable to the onset of mental health disorders. In fact, most mental health disorders occur between the ages of 14 and 24. AIR’s mission is to teach young people the signs and symptoms associated with mental health disorders so they can get help for themselves, friends and family members, and encourage others to seek help when needed. Part of AIR’s message is that no one should be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.
AIR’s signature colors are green, the color used in educational efforts focused on children’s mental health disorders, and white for the hope that the stigma against mental health disorders will one day be gone. The third Tuesday in May has been designated as National AIR Awareness Day, a day of kindness, respect and acceptance of others who are different inside as well as outside.
Who Is Kenny?
Kenny Baker was 19 years old when he lost his struggle with an anxiety disorder and depression and completed suicide by train on May, 19, 2009 on the Northeast Corridor line near his home. Kenny was the beloved son of Tricia and Kurt Baker of Plainsboro, New Jersey, and the brother of Katelyn. At the time of his death, he left behind a girlfriend and many other supportive and loving friends and family members. Kenny was less than three weeks away from high school graduation. In his emotional state, the idea of leaving school and moving on to the next phase of life was too overwhelming for him. Kenny was always a bright student. He was in the math honors classes at school. Kenny was a swimmer with the Hamilton Aquatics Club and the West Windsor Plainsboro High School Northern Knights swim team. He swam six days a week and worked as a lifeguard at the Princeton YWCA. He also volunteered at the local animal shelter.
What is the Problem?
One in four people is directly affected by mental health disorders (World Health Organization).
Four out of five people are affected by mental health disorders either directly, through their suffering with the disorder, or indirectly by having a friend or loved one with mental health disorders. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, 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 those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder (NIMH-National Institute of Mental Health and the American Association of Suicidology from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Fewer than 40 percent of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS]) because of stigma or lack of awareness of services. In the United States, the annual economic, indirect cost of mental health disorders is estimated to be $79 billion. Most of that amount – about $63 billion – reflects the loss of productivity as a result of health disorders (U.S. Dept. of HHS).
What Is AIR Doing?
“Coming Up for AIR™” Educational Presentations for Middle and High School Students
The Baker family has established the New Jersey non-profit Everybody Loves Kenny Project, Inc. with the mission of educating the nation’s youth. The message is that taking care of their brains is just as important as taking care of their bodies. Through AIR™, the Bakers have developed a one-hour education program, Coming Up for AIR™, to present to middle and high school students. The program combines facts about mental health disorders with Kenny’s story.
Since 2011, more than 75,000 middle- and high-school and college students in New Jersey and New York participated in the Coming Up for AIR presentations. In fact, several schools have invited AIR multiple times to give more of their students the opportunity to gain this critical understanding of mental health disorders and suicide prevention. Through these presentations, students gain vital knowledge about good habits to foster mental health, the prevalence and signs of mental health disorders, common reasons why many people do not seek treatment and the consequences of untreated mental health disorders. The second part of the presentation consists of Kenny’s story. The students are encouraged to share personal stories, including struggles and successful journeys in addressing mental health disorders and recovery. They also learn about resources, such as state and national hotlines, and are encouraged to speak with trusted adults when they or their friends need help. Students are also invited to become active in AIR awareness events.
Scholarship Opportunity for Local High School Seniors
The Kenny Baker Memorial Scholarship is awarded each spring to a local, graduating high school senior who swims at the Hamilton Aquatic Center and has a career goal of helping individuals with mental health disorders or helping to reduce the stigma.
Annual Art Contest to Further Spark Conversations and Build Awareness
AIR sponsors an annual T-shirt design contest that is promoted in the schools in an effort to engage art, health and education departments in the discussion about mental health, mental health disorders and suicide prevention. Prizes have included cash, the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Shuffle. The contest winners are announced during the Miki & Friends Walk & Run for AIR event, which is held each year in mid-May. Miki is the Bakers’ Certified Therapy Dog, who received the Award for Canine Excellence from the American Kennel Club in 2011 for his role in drawing individuals’ attention during community events and inspiring them to engage in conversations with the Bakers about AIR and ultimately, about mental health disorders and suicide prevention.
Annual Miki & Friends Walk & Run for AIR Event
This fun event features much more than the walk and run. One of the other many features is a concert, which brings young people together with a featured national or local talent to promote the discussion about mental health disorders. Participants are encouraged to bring their dogs for the walk and other activities, including American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen testing; Bright & Beautiful therapy dog evaluations; a Blessing of the Animals; and a Mini-Meet the Breeds presentation. Beginning in 2013, this event will also include a butterfly release to honor the memory of loved ones who have been lost to suicide.
Other Community Events through Partnerships Year Round
The Everybody Loves Kenny Project partners with community organizations to plan and present events that promote mental health awareness. These include a car wash with the Plainsboro Rescue Squad, a Celebrity Scoop Day at Rita’s Water Ice, and National AIR Awareness Day at a local Cheeburger, Cheeburger restaurant. In addition, AIR exhibits at a variety of events, several that focus on mental health (e.g., National Alliance on Mental Illness-New Jersey’s conferences) and other events that do not focus on mental health (e.g., local towns’ community days, events sponsored by dog-related organizations).
Tangible Reminders about AIR and its Message
At every school presentation and community event, AIR provides participants with green and white AIR AttitudesInReverse.org wristbands to promote mental health awareness. The wristbands also include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number, 1(800) 273-TALK.
Support Services to Help Relieve Mental Pain
One example of AIR’s support services is its AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds™ program. Displaced dogs with the proven ability and personality to be Emotional Support Dogs, which are more than pets, are matched with individuals who have a mental health disorder or developmental disability. The families who have received dogs so far are benefiting tremendously. The individuals who have mental, emotional or developmental disabilities are no longer socially withdrawn as the dogs bring comfort in and actually foster social interactions.