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Caring kid

High?school senior works to raise awareness about mental illness

April 15, 2012
By RODNEY MINOR , The Leader Herald

Ashley McDuffee is surprised at the attention she has received for raising awareness of mental illness.

She recently was honored as one of the medalists for the 2012 Jefferson Awards. She was included in a local TV station's report from the Jefferson Awards. McDuffee's work is even mentioned on the Fonda-Fultonville Central?School District's website.

Yet, as far as McDuffee is concerned, she shouldn't be the one receiving the awards.

Article Photos

Ashley McDuffee, right, a volunteer with the National?Alliance on?Mental Illness, hands a brochure to Becky Brenan, parent partner with the Family Counseling Center in Gloversville, during the Community Wellness Day on Tuesday at the Riverfront Center in?Amsterdam.
The Leader-Herald/Rodney Minor

"The people who live with [mental illness] every day, who are so incredibly brave. I feel like they should be showcased," she said.

McDuffee's effort to bring more information about mental illness to people is personal. A grandmother was diagnosed as bipolar/schizophrenic and both of her uncles were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she notes on her blog -

"I have seen the effects [mental illness] had on my family personally and I have seen the struggle that these individuals endure each and every day," she said on the website.

McDuffee said both her uncles are very comfortable with her talking about the fact they have an illness.

"I think it gives them a sense of pride," she said. "They're not embarrassed, so why should I be?"

McDuffee was at the Riverfront Center in Amsterdam on Tuesday, working at the booth for National Alliance on Mental Illness, handing out information to people about mental illness and the organization.

A couple years ago, McDuffee took a NAMI course on how mental illnesses can affect brain chemistry.

As someone who will attend St. Lawrence University, Canton, St. Lawrence County, next year as a biology major - and who has always had an interest in biology - the information fascinated her.

However, it also inspired her to make sure people had information about mental illness.

McDuffee's first task: giving a presentation to the assembled faculty at F-F high school on making more information on mental illness available to students.

"It was nerve wracking, but so cool," she said.

Not only was the school's faculty supportive - with more information about mental illness available to students - it also gave her the opportunity to speak with students.

At one presentation, she recalled, there was one boy who came in who did not seem very interested at all.

However, by the end of the presentation, that same boy talked about his own struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and how it was being treated with medication.

"He was willing to share in that welcoming atmosphere we had created," she said.

McDuffee has found a number of ways to spread her message about the importance of understanding mental illness. She has presented information about mental illness through workshops, speaking engagements and her blog. As the Fonda-Fultonville website - - notes, she has spoken to middle school classes during wellness days about how to work with people with mental illness and warning signs of the disease.

"One of Ashley's lessons is titled 'Stigma Busters' where she discusses words associated with mental illness that could be found offensive," the website says.

When she was named a medalist for the Jefferson Awards for 2012, it was noted she appeared in a video for NAMI talking about schizophrenia to an eighth-grade health class.

According to the website for the Jefferson?Awards,, the awards began in 1972 to create a Nobel?prize for public service. The awards are presented on two levels: national and local.

"Today, their primary purpose is to serve as a 'Call to Action for Volunteers' in local communities," the website said.

McDuffee was named Miss Mohawk Valley Outstanding Teen for 2010-2011, and was the fourth runner-up in the Miss New York Outstanding Teen 2011. Her platform, of course, was about the importance and awareness and understanding for people with mental illness.

McDuffee said ultimately, the thing she stresses the most to people is the importance of accepting those with mental illnesses, and being educated about how mental illness can affect people.

"We can better understand and support [people with mental illness] with knowledge," she said.

To learn more about McDuffee's work, visit her website at

For more information about mental illness awareness and advocacy, visit NAMI at



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