This profile was prepared when Manuela Richter-Werling was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
The New Idea
Despite the fact that 20 percent of all school children in Germany have already experienced a severe mental crisis, psychological problems are still considered taboo and those who suffer from them are ostracized. As a result, children do not dare to talk about their mental illnesses, but instead internalize their problems and withdraw from society. This leads to poor school performance and a further deepening of mental problems, often resulting in unemployment and a life-long dependency on public welfare. Manuela’s organization, Irrsinnig Menschlich e.V., changes this pattern. Through it, she equips local organizations with the knowledge and know-how to conduct effective prevention work in schools and help young people overcome their mental problems, encouraging them to talk about their problems and seek help from experts. Manuela’s prevention program incorporates three innovations that contribute to its success. First, the program re-frames mental problems from the perspective of mental health, placing the emphasis on possibilities and resources rather than deficits and pathologies. Second, the program places people who once suffered from mental illness and mental health professionals in teams who then work to educate and demystify mental health in schools. Lastly, by relying on regional networks, the program provides a stable, low-threshold link between schools and support organizations, which can help students in crisis. Manuela further contributes to removing taboos by cleverly marketing the concept of mental fitness, which similar to physical fitness, requires training to develop. She also sparks public discussions around the issue of mental illness with the help of prominent ambassadors and a film festival that travels to 70 cities throughout Germany.