Students at West Allegheny High School held a staff-student activity last week to form relationships with the teachers, faculty, and administration at their school. One of Stand Together’s goals is to encourage youth to reach out to an adult they trust when they’re worried about themselves or someone else. In order to feel comfortable reaching out to adults, youth need to have a relationship and rapport to do so. The WA team felt like this is something they really wanted to focus on this year. Last year, they really focused on increasing education and promoting inclusion and they felt like this was a logical step to promote help-seeking behaviors.
Staff were welcomed with snacks and water. Who doesn’t love food? It works for student projects and adults alike! The plates also had facts about mental and substance use disorders on them to set the tone. Then the students began the event by explaining what Stand Together is and what their goals were as a team and for the specific activity. To introduce the impact of mental and substance use disorders, the students had one in four staff around the room stand up to represent the one in four youth that are affected by a mental and/or substance use disorders in a given year. This visual representation served as a bridge to spreading awareness of the prevalence of these disorders in their students and how much an individual’s lives can be affected, even outside the signs/symptoms that they are experiencing.
Students got administrative approval to use a staff inservice, which is required for all faculty. Even though they were required to attend, most of them were actively involved in the discussions and were exciting to engage with the students. The staff were randomly assigned to a group and the students rotating around the room in pairs presenting questions about mental health and their role with youth. Some of these questions included:
What signs do you look for/see when a student is struggling?
What are the challenges you have when forming relationships with students?
How can relationships with students be both personal and professional?
What would help you be able to better help students?
Both the students and staff also shared some of their own personal experiences with each other. One student self-disclosed his own mental health conditions, which promoted the idea of both youth and adults regarding each other as people-first, regardless of their other roles or diagnoses. A staff member shared, ‘we don’t have perfect lives either and that helps me relate to some of my students.’ Other faculty described how they connect with students by utilizing humor and their own life-experiences. Mental and substance use disorders affect the individual outside of the disorder, and when they are getting help and have trust in the adults that are in their environment, students are more willing to learn and these connections make a positive impact. Students and staff alike shared discussions about the importance of balance in life, both inside and outside school and in professional and personal lives.
I was pleasantly surprised by the vulnerability and willingness of both the students and staff during this event. It was evident that the activity had created a sense of understanding and feelings of connection between the youth and adults. I was so proud to be able to observe and witness this meaningful occasion. I know without a doubt this activity was a great success. Thank you for decreasing stigma so that more youth feel comfortable reaching out to adults for help!
Linton Middle School in Penn Hills returns for its second year. Lead by advisor, Ms. Olivis, the team was so excited to begin their trainings and participate again-the students were asking Ms. Olivis for months when it was time to start Stand Together again! As you can imagine, this group was ready to jump in to the workshops and start working together to stop stigma at their school.
School is hard for youth in the mornings and it took the group a little while to warm up. We do physical activities that not only engage their bodies (which helps students learn), but also their brains-each activity has a purpose. In this blog’s feature, students were learning about the signs and symptoms of behavioral health disorders and some of the most prevalent conditions in youth. We engage the students in a breath-holding contest so that they can experience (on a minor scale) what it might feel like to have anxiety or a panic attack. We explain that this can be a very scary thing and could affect their ability to concentrate on schoolwork, hang out with friends, or complete daily activities. Students also learn that even though they could take a breath any time they wanted to, individuals with these disorders can’t just ‘snap out of it;’ they need help and support. Help and support were definitely plentiful in the room as students self-disclosed some of their difficult experiences and realized that they have more in common than separates them. The students finished out the first day with something we call Motivational Echoing, in which students gather as one to emphasize support, hope, and unity by repeating phrases from the trainer. These include statements such as: ‘I am not alone,’ ‘I am love,’ ‘It’s okay to not be okay,’ ‘It’s okay to get help,’ ‘I can help others get help,’ and, most importantly, ‘We’re in this together.’ Check out this clip:
Many of the students returned from last year, but there were just as many new faces. One of my favorite things is to notice how much the students grow and mature from year to year, especially in middle school. This group was no exception. Last year the team engaged their peers in a lemonade stand, plastered posters all across the school, and gave away hot cocoa. They created three fun, new snack give-aways to educate their peers about mental and substance use disorders and decrease the stigma associated with them in their school. Food always works to attract attention and the students chose items they knew would draw their peers: slushies, Hot Cheetos, and popcorn. They’re slogans were even better: ‘It’s cool to talk-stigma is not’ (slushies), ‘Burn out Stigma’ (Hot Cheetos), and ‘Pop Away Stigma.’ Popcorn stands and stair decorating seem to be very popular this year-which is fine by me, because popcorn is one of, if not, my favorite foods! Food is the way to the heart, or so I’ve heard. These students are definitely going to be challenging thought, changing attitudes, and redirecting behaviors to make their school a more welcoming environment for everyone, whether or not they are affected by a mental and/or substance use disorder.
We can’t wait to hear more about Linton’s project plans and come out for a visit to grab a slushie or some Hot Cheetos and witness the team changing minds and changing hearts, all in an effort to end stigma. Thanks for standing up and speaking out against stigma, Linton! We’ll see you soon!
Montour High School didn’t let the polar vortex freeze away their enthusiasm! Monday morning, the halls and cafeteria were filled with the buttery smells of a classic snack, popcorn! The Stand Together team and their advisor, Ms. Hester, wore black Montour t-shirts with #standtogether written in green letters on the backs of the shirts to represent mental health awareness. For three separate lunch periods, the team held a ‘Pop’ Stigma Stand and bravely engaged their fellow students in conversations about mental health, substance use disorders, and stigma.
Some of the team members helped to keep the table running smoothly, others helped bag popcorn, and some asked their peers myths and facts and asked them to sign the anti-stigma pledge. One Stand Together member explained the difference between mental illness and intellectual disorders to a group of her fellow peers at a lunch table. Other members had conversations to debunk myths and learn facts about mental illness. Students that participated in the activity were rewarded with a bag of freshly popped popcorn-all in an effort to ‘pop’ stigma. Students and staff were seen gathering at the table signing pledges, listening to their peers explaining the information, and enjoying their treats. The turnout was great! Stand Together members also discussed how to display the student pledges in their school as a reminder of the event and their commitment to change.
It was clear that Montour is serious about ‘popping’ stigma at their school. They are looking forward to bigger and better ways to do so in the next few months and in the coming years. Congratulations to Montour on your first Stand Together event. We can’t wait to see what’s next!
Propel: Braddock Hills High School is our other school that has been in the program all six years and each year they continue to surprise us with their creativity, passion, and commitment. They are mixing it up this year though: none of the students have participated in this group before. Several of the students participated at the middle school level, but it’s a whole new crop of students. New group = new ideas. It’s gonna be another great year!
Most of the students in the group didn’t know each other before the training. We find that oftentimes, these teams form the closest bonds. As groups engage with each other in team-building (such as Common Ground) and intimate activities (such as Cross the Line), they learn that they have more in common than separates them and that no one is alone. Although we all come from very different backgrounds and have varied experiences, we can all relate to each other and play a part in ending stigma.
This year, we were incredibly impressed by the ideas the students came up. Students viewed past projects and took them a step further, amping them up and pushing them to new heights (literally: a balloon release!). I was particularly fond of the ‘Stigma is Sour; Support is Sweet’ idea; every student that engages in the activity gets a slushie, but one in four get a pack of Sour Patch Kids (my favorite candy). Needless to say, I’ll be out to visit that day. The group had some really catchy slogans, too, including: ‘Light the Way’ (paper lanterns with facts) and ‘Letting Go of Insecurities.’ The group also plans to do a mask activity and have 1:4 students put a large X on their face to symbolize the 1:4 youth affected by mental and/or substance use disorders. This is even more meaningful as the definition of stigma means a mark of disgrace. Students hope this moving visual will create a huge impact on the culture of their school by increasing awareness and social inclusion. to break down stigma and advocate for asking for help.
We’re excited to see Propel BHHS projects in action later this year and are certain they’re ‘lighting the way’ to a future without stigma. Here’s to year six-let’s do this!
Oakland Catholic is our first private high school and we are so excited to have this group join us this year. The school jumped at the opportunity to join our team after a presentation at a regional Student Assistant Program meeting. (SAP is made up of staff members at schools that work to improve student’s education, whether it be mentally, physically, or academically.) It’s hard to believe I first spoke with them almost a year ago today! OC leadership was also quick to schedule a Youth Mental Health First Aid training for their staff before school started to educate their faculty even before Stand Together started. Their interest in improving the mental health environment for their students is inspiring and refreshing. Mental health matters!
These girls were a blast to work with! Although chatty at times (it was a group of teenage girls!), their enthusiasm didn’t end. All the students were fully committed to the program and activities. They had a lot of great questions and really came together as a group by the end of the first day. It was even more meaningful for the students that our assistant for the day, Julianna, went to OC herself. We laughed a lot, as you can see from all the pictures! And even though we had a lot of fun, the group was determined and passionate as they ‘stand together’ to stop stigma.
The team came up with so many good ideas on the second day that it was really difficult to narrow it down to three. From scrunchies, raffles, decorations, and so many other ideas, the group was adamant about educating their peers, spreading awareness, and breaking down social barriers, especially when it comes to seeking treatment. Of course, they had great slogans, too: ‘Stairways Against Stigma’ and ‘Elevators for Awareness’ were just a few they came up with. The students really wanted to focus this year on helping their peers realize that there are a lot of people that struggle with these issues, it’s okay to not be okay, and they’re not alone; people care, it’s okay to get help, and it can get better. These students warmed my heart with their wisdom and dedication to decreasing the stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders.
We’re proud to work with OC this year and we’re certain they’re going to make a big impact in their school with their creative activities and eye-catching marketing. Between the Stand Together team and faculty Mental Health First Aid-ers, they’re off to a great start. You go, girls!
Shaler Area Middle School is joining their high school counterparts in Stand Together this year to take action against stigma. Mr. Lisowski & Ms. Coleman’s crew was large and mighty and they came up with some incredibly creative projects for this year. Students are focusing on increasing education and awareness as well as social inclusion in fun activities for their peers during lunch.
Stand Together workshops cram a lot of information into one day and sometimes it can be difficult to absorb it all, so we review several times throughout the day, as well as provide takeaways for the students. We also engage the students in meaningful activities that help them remember the concepts while having fun, too. For example, we have all the students stand up and the trainer counts off by four. The first three students can sit while the fourth remains standing. Once we have gone around the room, the students can visualize the ratio of students that have a mental or substance use disorder (1:4). Another activity, Ships & Sailors, is a game of elimination in which students must follow directions and form groups of a specific number in order to stay in the game. Afterwards, we discuss what it was like to be ‘eliminated,’ excluded, and ‘betrayed.’ This is what stigma feels like. To remember the five most common signs of mental and substance use disorders, we have the students repeat them back to each other and give each other a ‘high-five.’ (Did you know physical action helps your brain remember things?)
Another important piece of our trainings is learning how to respond when you recognize those signs in someone you know. We emphasize that the students are not professionals, but there are still things they can do to help. That’s where the acronym S.H.E. comes in: support, hope, and encouragement. Students can be there for their friends that are struggling, hold hope for them when they cannot do so for themselves, and encourage them to talk to an adult/get professional treatment. We also realize that youth can identify concerns in family members as well. In the clip below, students review a scenario in which a student’s aunt is demonstrating signs of a mental illness. The students share how they would approach that individual, what they would say, and what they would do.
This year, the group has planned three unique projects to engage their peers. In January, students will ‘Band Together’ Against Stigma by answering questions about mental and substance use disorders and receiving a wristband to represent the 1:4 individuals that are affected by these conditions. Students are also using a winter theme (and cookies!) for students to share their personal experiences with mental and/or substance use disorders. Sharing our stories helps decrease stigma by promoting awareness and increasing social inclusion; students find that they are not alone in their struggles and they have more in common than what separates them. Lasly, the students are planning another cookie give-away to dispel the myths about these disorders and/or perform a socially inclusive act. This activity plays on the game, “Truth or Dare.” Students will have to decide whether a statement is a fact and/or do something to get to know someone new.
We’re excited to see these projects over the course of this year-and get some cookies while we’re at it! I have to say Snickerdoodles are a pretty underrated cookie, so I’m excited to see these treats teach and encourage other students to talk about mental and substance use disorders as they ‘Band Together’ against stigma.
The Creative and Performing Arts Academy (PPS) is one of our 10 (!) new schools for this year. And they’re serious about stopping stigma. So serious, that they requested to take a ‘serious’ photo of their group at the end! At any rate, mental health and stigma are serious issues-all the more reason we need to start talking about them and stop the stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders.
This year we added a more extensive section on substance use disorders. Students have had a lot of questions and substance use disorders often occur with and/or because of mental health conditions. In addition, as the ‘opioid epidemic’ comes to the forefront and more students are being affected by the use of heroin and ‘pain killers,’ it was important that our training provided much needed information to dispel myths, share information, and help youth address the specific stigmas attached to these disorders. Stigma is so pervasive and perpetuates the shame that comes from receiving treatment for both mental and substance use disorders, but these numbers continue to rise, especially youth using electronic vapor products and marijuana. It’s important to be knowledgeable and aware of not only these disorders, but also the resources available and how to help someone that may be struggling with a mental and/or substance use disorder.
Although one wouldn’t think it, the wrap-up on the first day is an important piece of the training workshops. After hearing from one of our team members (TA Montaja-she majored in Musical Theater!), Cross the Line, and what usually ends up being a very vulnerable, intimate, intense discussion, students take a break and come back to one of our last activities: Motivational Echoing. It might sounds like a simple activity, students come back together to solidify and personalize the truths we’ve discussed through the day:
Mental & substance use disorders are not my fault.
I am not alone.
I am loved.
It’s okay to not be okay.
It’s okay to get help.
I can help others get help.
We’re in this together.
Students leave the day feeling heard, valued, inspired, and equipped with the tools and experiences they need to influence their peers and design and implement projects to create change in their school cultures. The knowledge and awareness, feelings of social inclusion, and relationships with advisors/supporting staff pour out onto their peers and faculty. Change happens by confronting myths, changing attitudes, and promoting help-seeking and socially inclusive behaviors. The students at CAPA were no exception. They were exceptionally passionate and motivated to attack stigma head-on in fun, creative, and innovative activities.
By the end of the second day, the students at CAPA had come up with FOUR solid projects, including Stigma Stopping Stallions (S3) educational presentations, The Real Tea stand to discuss myths and facts, and a Living Wall, a version of a ‘truth booth’ in which students can visualize the impact mental and substance use disorders have on their peers, staff/faculty, families, and the community. The team will also hold an art gallery for students to create and submit original works inspired by mental health experiences. They will be displayed for the school and public. CAPA’s team is well on their way to using their ‘creative’ talents to make meaningful changes in their school!
We look forward to seeing CAPA’s projects in action and watching the students make a difference in the lives of those around them as they stand together against stigma.
The Science & Technology Academy (PPS) has returned for their second year in Stand Together with a core group of strong leaders and passion for mental health awareness all around. Like most of our teams, this is also a very diverse team, full of individuals with a wealth of knowledge as well as experience with mental and/or substance use disorders. These students weren’t afraid to share their own personal stories and struggles and had a lot of fun getting to know each other along the way.
This group had a lot of great discussions about how they’ve experience stigma in their own schools, homes, and communities and had strong views about the prevalence of stigma. They were passionate about the important of education, awareness, social inclusion, and having trusted relationships with adults to get the help people need when they are struggling. Needless to say, their second day of training was intense, creative, and focused. The students ended up with 5 components of a project! Woah!
This year, the students really wanted to focus on advocating, awareness, and staff relationships. Students will be engaging their peers in a kick-off assembly to refresh students’ memory from the previous year, as well as Lemonade for Change to review some of the basic information. Students will also be creating buttons to wear so that the other students in their school will know who they are and that the team members are people the students could reach out to if they’re worried about themselves or someone else. In addition, the students have planned a “Confidential Corner” to share anonymous mental and/or substance use experiences. Lastly, the group will engage their staff in fun activities to promote staff-student relationships and increase their knowledge and awareness of behavioral health and how it affects all of us.
SciTech has a big year planned and we can’t wait to see how the students and staff respond to their activities. Their motto, ‘Stand Together for Change” is a powerful reminder that if we work together, we can change the world. Join with us! Stop stigma!
Shaler Area High School is returning for its second year with Stand Together. We were impressed with the impact of their ‘truth booth’ project last year and the vulnerability of the entire student body. This year, of course, the ‘truth booth’ is being resurrected, along with a few other activities for another great year.
Many of the students returned from last year, but there were plenty of new faces that joined the team this year. One of my favorite moments was when two students connected over a discussion about therapy; one student was asking questions about partial hospitalization (that means when someone can go to school or work, but still has extensive amounts of group and individual therapy, usually 3 or so hour/day) and another student willingly shared some of her own experiences. This was incredibly powerful. Stand Together sees the incredible value in youth that have experienced these difficulties, whether themselves or someone they know, and their great opportunity to enact change from a lived-perspective. Sharing our stories helps others know it’s okay to not to be okay, you’re not alone, and help is out there; it can get better. There is hope; there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
We also had a lot of fun. The ‘fan favorite’ Ships & Sailors resulted in hilarious outbursts as students dramaticized movements and reactions. We had a lot of theater participants in the room and it clearly showed! The students also learned how to work together. Like many of our groups, the Stand Together team at SAHS was a diverse team of students. But after the first day, they were well on their way to forming a unified front against stigma.
One of my favorite parts of the day is the time we spend in circles. I know it sounds cliche, but this ‘circle time’ is where a lot of the ‘magic happens.’ Students find out that they have more in common than separates them, they get to know each other, and more importantly, they get to share pieces about themselves and how they’re going to use their passion and the information they learned to help others. This is always a moving time for me as students share things they learned, what they’re going to change, and what they’re going to contribute to the project. By the end of the second day, these students were ready to go.
These students also came up with some amazing ideas during their project piece. Using some of the activities we facilitate in trainings, as well as some creative new ideas, the students planned some amazing events for this year. We’re looking forward to this year’s visual, student activity fair, and newest version of the ‘truth booth.’ Thank you, SAHS, for not being afraid to #talkaboutit and #standtogether against stigma.
Another first year school, North Allegheny High School was incredibly impressive. Right off the bat, the students were already aware of many of the myths and were prepared to counter them with facts as early as the first activity. It was such a privilege working with such a passionate and aware group. Most of the team is also members of the school’s S.A.D.D. group. Even though they had some bonds and connections (and a decent knowledge of mental health), there were still plenty of new people to meet and new information to learn and share.
Although the students were very quiet at first, with some encouragement they quickly opened up. Everyone was willing and excited to participate in the trainings. One of our larger groups (30 members), it can be intimidating, especially for more reserved students. The most memorable moment for me was the discussion after Cross the Line. There were so many different perspectives and each student had a unique story to share. The group was vulnerable with each other and left the day feeling empowered to challenge others’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors to decrease stigma in their school.
The team couldn’t wait to start planning their projects. As a large school with many staircases, the students decided to use them to their advantage to kick-off the year by grabbing the students’ attention. Stand Together will be decorating each fourth step with green tape to provide a visual representation of the ratio of individuals that are affected by a mental and/or substance use disorder (1:4). The students plan to follow this activity with a video of both students and faculty sharing their own personal experiences with mental health, whether their own or someone they know. This will also serve as a transition to a form of Truth Booth the students will facilitate later in the year. The team also has a few other small activities throughout the year, so they’re definitely going to be busy!
A special shout-out goes to Mr. Longo, one of their advisors. He spent almost a year trying to get Stand Together into N.A. and it’s definitely paid off. The group is great, the advisors are invested, and leadership is abound. We can’t wait to see their projects in action this Spring!