The sudden death of a loved one can take our lives in unexpected directions. For Katelyn Baker of Plainsboro, the loss of her older brother, Kenny, to suicide one year ago this month at the age of 19 has turned her into an activist trying to promote a better understanding of mental illness, especially in young people.

The 16-year-old has channeled her pain into passion, and for that, she was recognized by the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma with the prestigious Ambassador Award in the category of Individuals and Families. “Winning the award meant a lot to me because it was posted on the school website and it meant that the school acknowledged what we were doing,” says Katelyn. “Kenny started something big. I’m doing this for Kenny because he suffered and he’s no longer with us. I know about mental illness. I know what the outcome can be and how much it hurts.”

Removing the stigma against mental illness is the goal of the Baker family, who marked the anniversary of Kenny’s death by launching a new national campaign, “A.I.R. — Attitudes in Reverse.” (For more information, go to www.attitudesinreverse.org.) Last weekend the A.I.R. team, over 100 members strong, had the largest representation at the NAMI Mercer Walk Against Mental Illness in Washington Crossing State Park.

Katelyn came up with the A.I.R. concept. “We want people to know that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. And stigma is such a harsh word. Both have such dark clouds around them. When you say the words ‘mental illness’ and ‘stigma’, everyone kind of shuts out. AIR sounds so light and airy. If you’re talking about AIR, Attitudes in Reverse, you start a conversation. We want to reverse attitudes and change the way people think and talk about mental illness.”

The Bakers also launched the first annual A.I.R. T-shirt design contest, won by Chris Zupancic of Plainsboro, like Katelyn, also a WWP High School North junior. “Since you can’t see air, it was hard to think of what to do, but then I made AIR into a cloud, which is like air you can see. It was really cool to look around and see people wearing the T-shirts and my design everywhere. I think young people should be more involved in helping other young people. It helps you feel good inside.”

Next year the Baker family hopes to get more school involvement with the T-shirt design contest. They plan to initiate it in the fall, so teachers will have time to incorporate the contest into their annual curriculum. In addition, the family has launched a scholarship in Kenny’s name which will be awarded this spring for the first time. Since Kenny was a champion swimmer, it will go to a graduating senior, a swimmer who has also demonstrated an interest and commitment in raising the awareness of mental health issues.

“Kids can help change the world in regard to mental illness because they’re open and accepting of their friends,” says Katelyn. “They’re not judgmental. They don’t carry the same attitude of stigma that many adults do.”

To illustrate her point, following are the voices of other kids who are helping to change attitudes and save lives. They are the teen members of Trentallica, a band that provided live musical entertainment at the NAMI walk last week. They represent the Hamilton School District which also suffered a devastating loss when Scott Powell, a promising high school student and athlete, took his own life last year, just two months before Kenny did.

Nick Simms, lead vocals, freshman, Steinert High School: “I know a lot of people who have thought about suicide themselves. Some close friends of mine have told me ‘I was having a bad month and I was thinking about taking my life’ so it hits close to home for me. I don’t understand how people can think like that, but I want to let people know they can get help.”

Anthony Metrick, guitar, senior, Hamilton High West: “Some kids say they’re depressed just to say they’re depressed but they may really need help. I think young people can help each other because they can understand and they have a similar life experience. A positive attitude can help brighten a day for someone who is having trouble. I would like this program to be heard because I think it helps out a lot of people. It makes me feel like I could be part of a social movement.”