My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Brandy)

My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Brandy)

This blog is part of a series from our Stand Together team to bring to light our experiences with depression and anxiety. May is Mental Health Month and it’s as good of a time as ever to end stigma by talking about our experiences and spreading awareness. You are not alone-we’re with you. We’re in this together.

Trigger warning: suicide & self-harm

Unsurprising to most (looking back, myself included), my symptoms of depression and anxiety began when I was a child. What I do find interesting is that my symptoms changed over time. In the very beginning, it was incredibly difficult for me to open up and meet new people, I kept my emotions ‘bottled-up inside,’ and I had issues not being comfortable with my body. In high school, I started to struggle with self-harm. I had yet to receive any kind of help for my mental health issues growing up, so these problematic symptoms became even more challenging when I went to college.

At university, my generally social anxiety turned into general anxiety (anxiety about any and everything). Along with my body image issues, I also developed a general feeling of inadequacy in my life, whether it be school, social life, finances, or anything else. Neither my good grades nor the praises that were given to me from loved ones consoled me. I still hadn’t received any treatment or developed any healthy coping skills; as it sounds, at that point it was a constant downhill spiral. It was at this time (in college), that I also started having suicidal thoughts and I ended up admitting myself to a psychiatric hospital.

Now I am finally on the proper medication (it took a few tries to find the right one for me) and I am constantly developing and using coping skills to diminish my feelings of loneliness and increase my feelings of self-worth. These strategies can look like anything from making origami to cleaning. Yes, I love cleaning! Haha. I’ve also cut out any ‘toxic’ individuals that were in my life that weren’t good for my mental wellness and I’m trying to reach out to my friends more, not only when I’m in need, but just to have meaningful human interaction that I crave.

I still don’t have too many friends (I only have a small handful of wonderful humans), but I don’t feel lonely or inadequate. My only thought now is,

I’m shocked I don’t have more friends because I’m pretty awesome!

Haha 🙂

To be able to have that mindset is something ‘younger Brandy’ would have never imagined and that, too, is pretty awesome. I also love making people smile. I love my cats. I’m a cherished friend a fierce advocate. I thrive off anime, Spongebob Squarepants, video games, and-much to the dismay of my dentist-pastries!

My big floof, Oliver

The things I like don’t define who I am and neither does my depression, but all these things make up who I am as a person. They are the little parts that interact with each other that make me who I am and shape how I view and navigate life. These pieces enable me to show other people-and myself!-that I have plenty to offer. I will fiercely and unapologetically be myself to achieve wonderful things in life. Because, like I said, I’m awesome! 🙂

Written by Brandy, *new* trainer

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My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Danyelle)

My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Danyelle)

This blog is part of a series from our Stand Together team to bring to light our experiences with depression and anxiety. May is Mental Health Month and it’s as good of a time as ever to end stigma by talking about our experiences and spreading awareness. You are not alone-we’re with you. We’re in this together.

I knew something was different about me from a very young age; I distinctively remember not feeling loved as a child-and that’s not a typical experience. It wasn’t long before my mental health conditions (MHC) emerged. Multiple mental health conditions frequently occur at once (co-morbidity) and can overlap in different ways; psychologists have recently discovered that all MHC are more connected than we ever thought.

Although I have bipolar disorder, I also have symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Depression is a phase of bipolar disorder, but the anxiety that accompanies it-and the in-between, baseline times-can be overwhelming. The important thing for me was not the diagnosis or the label, but discovering how to manage it and cope with my MHC on a personal-level. It took a while to find what works for me and sometimes I have to change my strategies, but as long as I stay aware and mindful of my feelings and their effects on my thoughts, I can minimize my struggle. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have to put a lot of effort forth every day to manage my health holistically, whether it’s attending therapy to talk through my emotions and experiences, exercise to promote the ‘good chemicals’ in my brain, or support from family and friends, I work hard to stay in balance. But it’s always worth it. I live with a mental health condition-but it doesn’t define who I am.

I am a person-first: a wife, lover of Mister Rogers, cat-mom, mental health advocate, friend, Christian, adventurer, foodie, and a person with a purpose. We’re all people-first – let’s start believing and treating each other like it; it makes all the difference.

Coordinator, Danyelle

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My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Montaja)

My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Montaja)

This blog is part of a series from our Stand Together team to bring to light our experiences with depression and anxiety. May is Mental Health Month and it’s as good of a time as ever to end stigma by talking about our experiences and spreading awareness. You are not alone-we’re with you. We’re in this together.

I first learned about depression when I met it face-to-face. Growing up, I struggled with thoughts about death and my rocky childhood experiences did not help with my mental wellness. The change in pace, constant moving, and inconsistency made me turn inward, keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself.

This trend followed me throughout school and stopped me from seeking the help I so desparately needed. I became a master at masking my feelings and struggles; with theater performance my college degree, it wasn’t hard to do.

Knowing all along something wasn’t right, but being afraid to actually ask about it, really kept me suffering in silence for a long time. Growing up, I didn’t have access to conversations about taking care of my mental health, let alone know who to reach out to for that kind of support. After finishing college and not having anything left to keep me running and distracted, I came crashing down into emotional distress.

Life started to make sense when I found out that I had been living with major depression disorder. I did have to work out my own stigma, accepting my diagnosis and accepting the fact that I needed help-and it was okay to do so. Talk therapy has helped me process and manage my recurring thoughts, fears, and shame. When I don’t feel okay, I allow myself to feel those feelings and have a cry if I need to. I also turn to humor, art, cooking, and writing to help me cope and thrive.

a Mixed Media Collage I created

My experience with depression and anxiety has helped me become who I am and advocate for myself and other. The best accomplishment I have made is becoming emotionally aware. I am still building my community of support and true self-care. I get closer and closer to arriving at joy each day. I credit this to the hard work I’ve done in therapy and my continued practice of mindfulness.

Talk about your feelings to an adult you trust and remember that your feelings don’t dictate your future-you do. A diagnosis is just a diagnosis; you are a ‘person-first.’ You can go on to do amazing things despite having a challenging condition. Take care of yourself and enjoy the small things (like tacos and koalas!). It can get better.

Written by Montaja, trainer

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Guest blog: Take Time to See Beyond a Person’s Look (Maisha Howze)

Guest blog: Take Time to See Beyond a Person’s Look (Maisha Howze)

Maisha Howze (contributer) was going to be the featured speaker at our Recognition Event this year. However, due to Covid-19, we had to cancel this event. We are honored that Ms. Howze agreed to compose a special blog about beauty written specifically for Minority Mental Health Month 2020. (More about Maisha can be found after the blog.)

In today’s society, the outside appearance is very important to many people. We see it often: people focus on the ‘right’ filters and angles, the retake of a simple photo of friends and family at a social event can result in several retakes for people to ‘feel’ as though a good picture was taken before it can be posted on social media…some people have endured the pain of surgery to enhance their outside beauty. Others refuse to be seen without make-up, hair extensions, or hair dye. In 2018, the beauty industry was valued at $532 billion and is certain to continue to rise. There is a ridiculous number of companies (182), but they are only owned by 7 major leaders. It seems as if this is a one-sided industry controlled by an ‘elite’ who decide what is considered ‘beautiful’ for everyone else.

Although I do not believe the beauty industry strives to exploit insecurities or perpetuate the idea that people cannot present their natural selves. For those who may already have an existing internal struggle with self-worth, the need to be accepted by social beauty standards are at significant risk.

I believe this very thing has happened to many in the African American community. So many of us were conditioned to believe that a certain look is most acceptable by society. In some respects, some feel inferior if their natural look does not align with who they see on television or in the entertainment industry. The thought that ‘light is right’ led to many people using bleaching creams or an abundance of make-up on their skin. The thought that straight hair was somehow ‘right’ led to many people using chemicals to alter their naturally kinky hair. The thought that a thinner nose was ‘right’ led to many people having rhinoplasty (plastic surgery of the nose). The thought that a smaller waistline is ‘right’ led to many ‘tummy tucks.’ These are all things done to be more acceptable in society’s view. The struggle that some African Americans must be accepted or at the very least not be viewed in an unfavorable way can be a heavy burden to carry. The struggle with trying to appear ‘acceptable’ and still have the mental and emotional capacity to cope with your own internal struggles can lead to unstable health.

There is a lot of time and money focused on enhancements and ‘being beautiful’ on the outside. Enhancements are not a bad thing, but when this is done to cover-up issues that you are struggling with internally, it can be very detrimental. When you consistently cover-up who you are and what you are truly dealing with, it may be hard for others to see beyond your created self. Some say, ‘presentation is everything,’ but what does this really mean? Is the person’s presentation a true representation of who they are? Or are they covering up internal struggles?

Internal struggles can be past or present trauma, mental health and/or substance use challenges, familial discord, grief, disappointments, loss…the list goes on and on. These issues are at times buried so deep within the person it can be very difficult to recognize. Then the focus on external presentation may inhibit the ability to recognize a person’s issues may seem near impossible. But if you take the time to ‘insert a pause’ when interacting with people, you may be able to see beyond their ‘look.

As you journey through each day, do you take the time to truly see the person in front of you? Do you challenge yourself to go beyond the surface of what others may present? This is challenging, but it can be accomplished. This act of humility and compassion may literally save the person’s life. There are people that are truly suffering from internal warfare; they get up every day, go to work/school, interact with others, care for their siblings/children, care for parents/grandparents, attend church, participate in social activities – but because of their outside presentation, others would never know internal struggles exist.

Truth be told, that person was me! About 15 years ago, I was struggling with constant thoughts of suicide and even those closest to me had no idea.

They had no idea that I had daily thoughts of taking my own life.

In fact, people would often tell me that I looked like I always had it all together. That could not have been further from the truth. At times I felt like I was drowning, but if you were only focused on my outside appearance, you would never have known. I was a single parent of twins, in college, and working multiple jobs. But I was spiritually, mentally, physically, and emotionally drained.

I also had not healed from previous self-esteem issues. As a young person, I was teased because of my physical appearance; this was very difficult for me. I thought I had moved past those feelings of inadequacy and ‘not measuring up’ to those societal norms of beauty. On the outside, I had a ‘good presentation’ and I was sure to walk with my head held high. It was a struggle, but I felt forced to do so.

I was too afraid to let my head down even a little bit or miss a beat, because then others would know that I didn’t have it all together.

It can be a suffocating feeling to think that you must always ‘be on,’ not trip or allow others to see the vulnerability in you. I challenge you to not view this as a ‘trip,’ but as a calculated step towards healing. The healing process is taken step-by-step. You cannot approach your process without being honest with yourself first about those internal issues that you are struggling with, the challenges we try to cover-up and hide from others.

I am grateful that someone was able to see beyond my outside appearance. This person was not concerned with the origin of my issues, but instead that I start taking care of myself and begin the healing process. She could see that I was dealing with an internal struggle. Although she was not certain where my internal struggles came from, she was able to be supportive and help me through my inner turmoil. Her concern was not the where, but how I would transition from my place of hurt and when I would begin my process of healing.

Fast forward to now. I recently published a book entitled W.A.S.H. (Withstand All Strife to Heal): Time to Do YOUR Laundry. W.A.S.H. is designed to help the reader move from a place of withstanding the strife they have endured to a place of healing.

In the book, I talk about two different types of ‘stains’ (issues/concerns): ‘laundry stains’ and ‘life stains.’ Laundry stains are marks, possibly from ‘dirt’ that is not easily removed. Life stains are issues/concerns that have caused damage to you emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, etc. It is the life stains that some people strive so hard to cover up on the outside.

As a community, WE have a responsibility to support others through their healing.

Much like a laundry stain can spread and begin to negatively impact the other fabric in the laundry basket, this too can happen when someone in your community has a life stain that has begun to negatively impact them. Issues that a person is fighting internally can have a tremendous impact on the community. Internal struggles can manifest in different ways: unhealthy thoughts and actions, such as drug and alcohol use/abuse, unstable/untreated mental health conditons, criminal behavior, and a lack of attention to personal needs (employment, housing, children, etc.), just to name a few.

We know that the beauty industry, social media, and societal norms of a person’s appearance will most likely continue to be superficial. We know that many will continue to struggle internally and try to cover up their inner turmoil with perceived outside beauty. BUT, we also know THERE IS HOPE. There is hope that as a community, we can support those who struggle internally and support them on their healing journey to love themselves.

The time you invest in ‘seeing’ a person beyond their look can be invaluable and literally save their life.

About the Author: Maisha Howze has worked in the social services field for more than 20 years. She is currently the Administrator of Allegheny Co. Bureau of Drug & Alcohol Services. Ms. Howze is the owner of In Touch Consulting, LLC and the author of W.A.S.H.: Time to Do YOUR Laundry (see below). Maisha is passionate about community, healing, and mentoring young women. Special thanks to Maisha for sharing part of herself and her wisdom in this amazing blog.

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North Hills Stand(s) Together: #onetribe

North Hills Stand(s) Together: #onetribe

When we presented Stand Together a year ago (can you believe it?!) at North Hills HS, the answer was a quick and resounding YES! The SAP team leaped at the opportunity to better the mental health environment of their school and provide the youth with a positive means of talking about mental health. In addition, we had a lot of support from the administration; the school’s principal was previously at one of our other ST schools! We knew it was going to be a great year from the start.

Even before the ST team met to complete their training, they had already completed an activity. At the first home football game of the season, mental health facts were shared on the sound system before the game and the student section had an impactful visual: a banner with various stigmatizing words was ripped to signify the end of stigma at their school with the start of the Stand Together program. Students also held up a Stand Together banner to symbolize their school’s solidarity. (#onetribe) What a great way to kick off the year! (pun intended)

After the activity at the game, the students continued their momentum by preparing for their first project: peer-to-peer presentations to be facilitated the week after the training! Students introduced themselves and the Stand Together program and had created a PowerPoint slideshow with information and a Kahoot! game. Their peers learned the definitions of mental illness and stigma and factual information to counter some of the myths associated with mental and substance use disorders. The group wanted their peers to know that they’re not alone and it’s okay to get help.

Individuals can’t choose to have a mental and/or substance use disorder, but WE can choose to help. STAND UP, don’t stand by!

The group continued the year by sponsoring a ‘trunk’ at their community ‘Trick’or’Trunk’ halloween event to become visible to and support their community. They also hosted a Star Wars themed mindfulness event during their school’s wellness week. After focusing on self-care, the team engaged their peers in an interactive event for both students and faculty. Students wanted their peers to be aware of the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders in youth by creating paper chains that were displayed around the school. Three chain links were white for everyone one red link to help students visualize the 1:4 ratio of those affected by these disorders. (Red and white are the school’s colors.) On each link, students were encourage to anonymously share how mental and substance health disorders have affected their lives. The chain also represented how the school was ‘Stand-ing Together,’ no matter their experiences or differences (#onetribe). A great number of students participated in this activity and the chains were on display for everyone to see for several weeks.

Unfortunately, North Hills didn’t get to finish all the projects they wanted to get to this year because of Covid-19 – but that didn’t stop them from pressing forward and continuing their efforts to end stigma! The students and advisors created a moving video of themselves sharing support and mental help tips for this challenging time. They wanted to remind their peers and others that they are not alone, remind them of Stand Together’s mission, and encourage their peers to take care of themselves in various ways, including pet therapy, time outside, motivation, and how to ‘stand together,’ even ‘while standing apart.’ Students were reminded to ‘stay home, but ‘stand together,’ One of my favorite parts was at the end when advisor Ms. Wrabley held up a poster with the following tips, forming the acronym SPEAK UP!:
-Start with family
-Phone a friend
-E-mail your counselor
-Ask for help
-Keep trying
-Use resources
-Phone #1-888-You-Can (Resolve Crisis Line)

North Hills High School had an AMAZING first year and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next year. This will be difficult to top, but we know they’re up for the challenge! We certainly are #NHproud! See you in the fall!

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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Alcohol Awareness Month: What You Need to Know

Alcohol Awareness Month: What You Need to Know

Although Stand Together isn’t an ‘anti-drug campaign’ per se, we do discuss substance use disorders and their impact on the individuals that develop them. Alcohol is everywhere-on TV and social media and, for many youth, in their homes. It’s widely accepted because it’s legal and readily available and it’s heavily romanticized as a ‘right of passage,’ the ‘college way,’ or (and yes, I’m lame and use this word) ‘the cool thing to do.’ But the reality of the situation is that alcohol can be just as dangerous and deadly as any other substance and just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe or can’t become a problem.

I’m not going to bore you with a slew of statistics, but I wanted to note a few things I think are important to know about young adults and alcohol use.
-11% of all alcohol consumed is by under-aged youth
-18.6% of youth start drinking before the age of 13
-34.9% of teenagers have had a least 1 drink in the last 30 days
-25% of teen car crashes involve an impaired, underage driver
-Young adults that start drinking before age 15 are 4x more likely to develop substance use disorders than those who start at age 21
Clearly alcohol use by youth and young adults is a problem-and that’s why it’s important that we #talkaboutit!

A good place to start is to identify the reasons why people abuse (mis-use) or develop an addiction (dependence) on alcohol. Sometimes individuals may use substances to escape or deal with negative feelings, they might have an underlying mental health condition, use them to decrease social anxiety, or just to ‘fit in.’ Social and other media can pressure individuals into trying or using alcohol. The importance of getting good grades/into a good school, achieving in sports, or just the stress of everyday life can take its toll on an individual, especially if they already are at risk of developing or have an underlying mental health condition. If alcohol or other substances are readily available or someone sees them being used in the home, a young person could think that this is ‘normal’ and/or engage in the behavior, even at an earlier age. Right now, the coronavirus has people stuck at home experiencing loneliness and life changes far greater and more rapidly than ever before. The more stressors and risk factors an individual has in one’s life, the more likely they are to use alcohol and/or develop a substance use disorder. On an everyday basis we all encounter things that affect our mental health-how we deal with them is important.

Regardless of the reason an individual drinks, an alcohol use disorder can cause impairment in living, including health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. This includes lack of control, changes in behavior, and risky use, such as binge-drinking. Just as a mental illness affects many parts of an individual’s life, so does a substance use disorder, but it occurs with the use of a substance. And, like mental health conditions, a substance use disorder of any kind (including alcohol) can stem from biological, psychological, and environmental factors. No wonder its use is so prevalent!

Mental health and substance use disorders are clearly closely related and can not only have the same causes and effects, but also some of the same signs (remember W.H.A.P.P.*). Sometimes, individuals with a mental health condition use substances to mask the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing due to the disorder. This is called self-medicating. Often, it’s easier to use substances because someone might be afraid to or unable to get help and these substances-especially alcohol-are readily available. Many individuals that ‘self-medicate’ develop substance use disorders as a result of long-term use; this is called co-morbidity, or co-occuring disorders.

A lot of youth use alcohol and many young adults start drinking in high school or college. Although ‘experimentation’ is considered a part of the human experience (and by no means are we advocating this is okay), it’s important to be able to recognize that someone could be developing a substance use disorder. There are two kinds of disorders: abuse and addiction. An individual that abuses (or misuses) alcohol may engage in binge-drinking or excessive use (‘getting drunk’), but they’re still able to stop using; they are still in control and their use can fluctuate. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences: DUIs, hang-overs/black-outs, reckless behavior, promiscuity, and violence can all occur ‘under the influence.’ When an individual experiences withdrawal and tolerance without use, they are said to have developed an addiction (or dependence). An individual at this stage will drink every day, multiple times a day, and ‘crave’ or need the substance to perform daily tasks. Addiction is considered a disease because it physically changes and individual’s body and they depend on the alcohol to function. Without alcohol, the individual could experience physical symptoms, such as over/under-sleeping, shaking, cravings, and gaining/losing wait, as well as psychological symptoms (depression, anxiety, panic, etc.).

It’s important that when you notice any or all of these signs in yourself or someone you know that you reach out to an adult you trust to get help. I know it can seem embarrassing or that you’re going ‘behind someone’s back,’ but we want people to live a successful, meaningful life-without the use of alcohol-and you could save someone’s life. The person could deny that they have an issue or are struggling; this occurs frequently. If this happens, you can still talk to an adult and be there for your friend, letting them know that you care about them, you’re there for them, and you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to talk. (For more suggestions, check out our handout. << link)

The good news is that alcohol and other substance use disorders are treatable, there is hope, and recovery is possible. Treatment and recovery are unique to each individual and may include:
-individual or group therapy/counseling
-peer support/groups
-mental health services
-self-care (coping skills, exercise/healthy eating, spirituality, etc.)
No matter the modality, treatment addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. With treatment from mental health professionals and the support from family and friends, individuals can have happy, healthy lives, YOU can connect an individual to an adult you trust to get that help and support them along their recovery journey (S.H.E.*).

Underage drinking and substance use affect everyone, just like mental health disorders. The more we educate ourselves and others, decrease the stigma associated with having these conditions and seeking help, and engage trusted adults when we’re concerned, we can prevent alcohol abuse and addiction and get individuals that are struggling the assistance they need to live a successful, meaningful life. Remember-we’re all in this together. You play an important role in connecting with your peers-take a chance, step out of your comfort zone, and reach out. You could change that person’s life!

*W.H.A.P.P. (the five signs: withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, personality change, poor self care)
S.H.E. (how to help: provide support, hope, and encouragement) (link to handout)

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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West A: Education & Engagement

West A: Education & Engagement

West Allegheny High School is no stranger to Stand Together. This is their third year in the program and each year it gets better and better. Although some of the students may change, their passion for ending stigma and focus on education and engagement shine beyond their years.

One of West Allegheny’s priorities has always been education. Whether it’s in discussions with staff/faculty during professional development sessions or during peer-to-peer sessions, the team uses contact in small groups to connect with their audience and educate them in a way that is not only fun and engaging, but also incredibly valuable.

Common Ground

Since one of the team’s advisors is the physical education and health teacher, she was more than happy to share time with her classes to discuss mental health, after all: mental health is just as important as physical health! Students learned not only about the Stand Together program and the West A projects, but also about mental health diagnoses and each other. Members started by engaging their peers in Common Ground, an activity where students learn more about each other by moving seats when different statements apply to them. This helps break-the-ice and get people moving and talking.

The rest of the time was spent sharing information and engaging in a diagnosis/definition match game and Kahoot! This medium has been a favorite for many of our schools as it uses technology and competition to keep the students engaged while learning the information. Students also shared some resources and how individuals could get help if they were worried about themselves or someone else. They covered all three goals in this project: increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and encourage reaching out to a trusted adult! Woah!

West A’s squad also had a W.H.A.P.P. day for the students in their school. The team painted their faces with a hand-print to signify the ratio of 1:4 individuals that are affected by a mental health and/or substance use disorder. Painted in green (mental health) and purple (substance use) awareness colors, their peers could visualize the number of youth experiencing these conditions and were also reminded of the W.H.A.P.P. acronym-signs they could see that someone was struggling and needed emotional support.

During this activity, students learned what stigmatizing language is, how to recognize it, and positive words to replace it with instead of the negative connotations associated with mental and substance use disorders. Students wanted their peers to know that a person is just that-a person-first and that a behavioral health condition doesn’t define who someone is; that disorder is only part of who they are. Although it may affect that individual in many ways, people with mental and substance use disorders recover and have successful, meaningful lives.

Students demonstrated this by removing a red post-it note with stigmatizing language on it with a green note with a personal characteristic or appropriate word/phrase. Youth that engaged in the activity also received a ticket to win a gift card as a token of the team’s appreciation. By the end of the day, all of the red had been replaced with green in the shape of a green ribbon for mental health awareness! What a meaningful visual and physical activity for students to participate in!

Students also signed the anti-stigma pledge, agreeing to:
-speak up and speak out against stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders in their school and community
-not use stigmatizing language, like ‘psycho,’ ‘crazy,’ or ‘mental,’ to refer to anyone, whether that person has a mental illness or not
-share information, resources, and experiences to spread awareness and acceptance
-provide support and hope and encourage others to seek help when they’re struggling (S.H.E.)

The team also had plans for a mural that is still in the works. This whole quarantine thing has really dampened a lot of our teams’ plans, but West A continues to work virtually to educate their peers and provide resources. They have recently started an online campaign to provide their peers with tools to help them deal with anxiety and engage in self-care, become aware of the signs, and learn when and-more importantly-how to get help. This virtual project continues to keep the team’s momentum, even if they can’t hold events in person! How awesome is that?!

Thank you, West A, for another great year! We can’t wait to see the finished mural and follow your virtual project for tips. You’re changing the world-one student and staff member at a time!

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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DLHS-Lancers Slay Stigma

DLHS-Lancers Slay Stigma

Deer Lakes High School was more than eager to participate in Stand Together this year; with a resounding, excited YES! their mental health team and administrators elected to begin a chapter in their school.

Since it was their first year, the students wanted to make sure their peers became aware of the Stand Together program and understood what the team was going to set-out to accomplish. The DL team produced a video outlining the goals* and explaining the importance of discussing mental health and substance use disorders. Students shared the prevalence of these conditions (1 in 4 youth) and encouraged their peers to reach out to an adult if they’re worried about themselves or someone else. Check it out!

Students followed the video with an assembly sharing information about mental and substance use disorders with their peers. They showed the Nuggets video to educate them about substance use disorders and I got to share my recovery story to inspire students. It was an amazing experience-over 400 students and staff members were present! The students concluded the assembly with a Kahoot! game; students from each grade competed to get the highest score and prove their mental health IQ. It was a great way to get the students involved in the activity.

Thankfully, the group was also able to engage students with an additional activity before they switched to online learning. The team created a spinning wheel with various options for the students to respond and participate: myth or fact, pop culture, definitions, and even player’s choice! Posters surround the sign encouraging the students to recognize the signs of stigma (S.T.I.G.M.A.**) and mental health conditions (W.H.A.P.P.**) and how to help (SHE**). All students that participated got candy and students that answered correctly got a ‘bonus prize;’ these included an assortment of mental health awareness items like pins, lanyards, pens/pencils, and keychains. Everyone was encouraged to sign the anti-stigma pledge and wear a DL Stop the Stigma! wristband to show their united support to end stigma.

Deer Lakes HS is off to a great start. Although they might not be able to get in another in-person project this year, we’re excited to see what they come up with in the years to come!

*The three goals of Stand Together are to increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and encourage youth to reach out to an adult they trust when they’re concerned about themselves or someone else.

**The acronyms are, as follows:
-S.T.I.G.M.A.: stereotypes, teasing, inappropriate language, ignorance, myths, and attitude
-W.H.A.P.P.: withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, personality change, and poor self-care
-S.H.E.: support, hope, and encouragement

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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TJHS Poppin’ the Stigma in 2020

TJHS Poppin’ the Stigma in 2020

Thomas Jefferson High School (West Jefferson School District) got right into action ‘popping the stigma’ about mental illness and substance use disorders in their first year in the program.

As I entered the lively lunchroom, Stand Together advisors and student members were spotted hosting a table decorated with popcorn flyers and a pledge poster for their peers to sign. Since it is their first year, they decided to focus on sharing who they are as a group, as well as some of the basic information. This activity focused on the ratio of youth who are affected by mental health and/or substance use disorders (1:4). The team was ready and excited to engage with other students and staff members.

Is there a better way to ‘pop’ the stigma than with popcorn?! The Stand Together team had prepared the popcorn and filled the bags ahead of time, but they also had an active popcorn machine on site to lure students to participate with the tantalizing smell of a buttered treat. For the four lunch periods, the team rotated making announcements to their peers about the Stand Together mission and why their fellow classmates should come and get popcorn-AND learn about mental health. A generous donation of popcorn was given to TJHS by the Pittsburgh Popcorn Company. There was plenty for all the students and every teacher and staff member was gifted a bag of popcorn in their mailbox!

If they don’t come to you, go to them! We meet people where they are!

Two to three Stand Together members went around the lunchroom, coming to their peers and inviting them over to the popcorn stand; they also gave them more information about the program, the event, and mental health. While at the tables, students and staff learned that by signing the pledge, they were taking a ‘stand’ on ending the mental health stigma in their school and creating a safer and more welcoming environment.

The ST group passed out purple and green bags with a 1:4 ration sticker to seal the bag. Get this: those students and staff who got a green bag of popcorn provided a visual representation all across the room, a massive sea of one green bag to every three purple bags to show that so many people (25% in fact) are affected by mental and/or substance use disorders. I mean, come on! What a great way to set the foundation in your school, TJ!

TJHS is also very excited to roll-out an online Kahoot! game for their whole school to participate in virtually. In our current circumstances, it is very important-if not imperative-to stay connected. This team is doing just that, all while promoting mental health education and wellness practices for their school community. The group can also be followed on Instagram at @standtogethertjhs and their counseling department at @tjhscounselors. Check them out for mental health facts, inspirational messages, and wellness tips! You’ll be glad you did!

Way to go, Thomas Jefferson HS! Keep up the good work-we can’t wait to see your Kahoot!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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NASH Tigers #talkaboutit for a Clearer Vision in 2020

NASH Tigers #talkaboutit for a Clearer Vision in 2020

North Allegheny Senior High School is returning for their second year in Stand Together and what a whirlwind it has been! Their team was able to complete two of their activities before the ‘quarantine’ went into effect and have really left an impression on their school this year, excelling beyond their previous work last year.

NASH’s first project was an interactive anti-stigma fair with various stations of educational activities for their peers. Building off of last year’s peer-to-peer presentations, they went many steps further this year. In 2019, the group prepared a moving video (link) of students and staff sharing their personal experiences with mental health and substance use disorders. They then broadcast this movie to students during their gym classes and engaged the students in a true/false activity accompanied by a PowerPoint of education and review of resources.

This year, the team hit it out of the park! (Can you tell we’re missing baseball?) Instead of a small classroom of students with a video and a presentation, students created a huge event with activities for all the students to rotate through. They also produced another video (link), this year focusing on treatment and recovery. Students again shared their struggles, but also talked about how they bounced back and who-and what-helped them along the way. After the video, students went through various stations around the room to learn about stigma, challenge myths, and use physical activities as a metaphor for mental health challenges:
‘Stigma Ducks’ (a play on words) – educating students about the S.T.I.G.M.A. acronym* and challenging students to think about the consequences of stigma.
‘Be a Helping Hand Obstacle Course’ – students went through the ‘course’ blind-folded-only one person got to have a peer help them as they went through. This activity signified the importance of S.H.E.* and the support of family and friends when someone is struggling with a mental and/or substance use disorder. Students received a mini hand clapper for participating. (Get it?!)
Myth or Fact spinning wheel
1 in 4 Hoops – 1 in 4 individuals got a football instead of a basketball to show how mental and substance use disorders make it harder for the 1:4 individuals that struggle with them.
The Pledge – students read and signed the pledge on a huge poster to show their commitment to ending stigma in their school.
Whew! That’s a lot of education and awareness in one event!

The group followed that amazing event with another that covered all three of our goals: their take on a ‘truth booth.’ Students and staff alike were encouraged to visit the stand and select a color-coded tiger (their mascot) paw or paws that represented themselves to add to the ‘tree.’
Purple : I personally deal with a mental illness and/or substance use disorder.
Green : I am a friend or family member of someone with a mental and/or substance use disorder.
Blue : I support or advocate for someone with a mental and/or substance use disorder.
Yellow : One way that I can help someone with a mental and/or substance use disorder is to… (fill-in-the-blank)**

The impact was remarkable. Multiple students and staff shared their own experiences with mental and/or substance use disorders (‘I have…’ ‘I have a brother…’ ‘I am a cousin to someone that has a substance use disorder.’) Without being asked to, students disclosed some of their struggles; others wrote inspirational messages for their peers that were experiencing this issues:
-‘I will be okay.’
-‘You are strong and you are worthy.
-‘Last year was extremely rough. The recovery I had was huge…but there’s much more to improve on.’
-‘Be kind to yourself.’
-‘You’re never alone.’
-‘I have a good friend that deals with one. Much love to her.’


‘Schizophrenia does not have the right to control you.’

Anonymous

I can’t believe how eager students were to participate and how vulnerable they were willing to be with each other. Even though it was anonymous, students and staff had a visual reminder that they were not alone and that we’re all in this together. We all are affected by mental health and substance use disorders in some way and mental health is just as important as physical health. These youth are addressing myths and breaking down barriers to treatment by normalizing discussions about mental health in their school communities. After students put their paw on the tree, they were given a package of resources and treats for participating, including how students could help a peer, Resolve crisis cards, End the Stigma: NA Stand Together stickers, and a green bead necklace to remember the event.

I was so glad that I was able to attend and participate in these events. I could tell the students were having fun and engaging in the activities, but were also having intimate and sometimes intense conversations about mental and substance use disorders and the stigma associated with them. The team also plans to design a permanent mural for their school to remind them of the program, the pledge, and NASH’s commitment to ending stigma. Congrats on another job well done! Thanks for all your doing-you’re changing lives!

*S.T.I.G.M.A. – stereotypes, teasing, inappropriate language, ignorance, myths, and attitude
*S.H.E. – support, hope, encouragement

**Click here to view a list of things you can do and say to help your peers.

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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