October 10th was World Mental Health Day. In solidarity, people all over social media posted about their mental health experiences, spreading awareness, and working towards stopping stigma. But how do you help a person who is experiencing a mental illness? That’s where recovery comes into play.
More commonly than you would think, the definition of recovery is misconstrued. People think that recovery is a one-time event but really, recovery doesn’t have an end. Rather, recovery is the continuous process of improving one’s health. The goal is to live a healthier and more fulfilling life. The recovery journey is unique to each person. People will have achievements and setbacks in their recovery, but it’s all part of the process. That’s why it’s important to celebrate the progress that people make in their recovery.
It’s also very important to spread awareness and educate everyone about the process of recovery. That’s why we talk about recovery for not one, but two months:
The month of September focuses on substance use while October focuses more on mental health. Both substance use and mental health recovery maintain that recovery is an ongoing process, however substance use recovery emphasizes harm reduction and decreasing or eliminating substance use while mental health recovery aims to reduce or eliminate symptoms. This can be best achieved through a combination of medication, therapy, and rehabilitation. Just like any other illness, mental and substance use disorders can be reoccurring. That’s why it’s important to know that recovery is ongoing. Recovery is all about making connections, having hope, establishing a strong sense of self, finding meaning or purpose in what you’re doing, and being empowered. These tenants of recovery serve as a foundation for living a higher quality and healthier life.
The fact that September and October are so focused on recovery gives us the opportunity to start discussions about mental health and substance use. It’s a reminder that these topics need to be talked about. Staying silent doesn’t help; stigma hurts everyone. There’s so much stigma surrounding substance use and mental health. People think that people who are experiencing substance use disorders and mental illness choose to live this way. They take the person out of the equation and use stigmatizing language like “crazy” and “junkie”, not acknowledging that whatever place these people may be in their recovery journey, they are still people-first. If we can all just make one change in our lives, how about using more thoughtful language? Take stigmatizing language out of your vocabulary and instead say “person experiencing bipolar disorder” or “person experiencing a substance use disorder.”
Another important way we can help others in their recovery journey is by reaching out. If you see someone who seems socially disconnected, ask him/her how he/she is doing. These simple words can have a major impact. Isolation makes people more stressed, serving to further negatively impact people’s health. By connecting with others, we can instead help them build resiliency, the ability to cope with and adapt to challenges and change. Resilient people have a good skillset to help them deal with stress and have the motivation to begin or continue the process of recovery. Because of this, building resiliency can be the turning point in someone’s recovery.
Helping other people recover is what spreading awareness is all about. Whether someone is experiencing substance use disorder, mental illness, or a combination of the two, talking about not just the illness but about recovery can make a significant difference. So, reach out to someone you know and start a conversation about recovery today.
Suicide affects all of us. 1 in 5 teens seriously consider suicide each year. It tears a hole in our lives and communities that we can’t easily repair. That’s why preventing suicide from occurring is so important. This is especially true given that mental health is a major contributing factor in suicides.
Way too often, communities keep quiet about mental health issues. There’s a stigma about openly discussing mental health and suicide. This very stigma can discourage a community or individual from implementing suicide prevention programming or seeking help. Rather than preventing suicide from happening in the first place, communities oftentimes take action after the tragedy has already occurred. However, the best place to start is before a suicide occurs. That’s where organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program come into play.
Similarly, the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program offers youth and teen trainings, community member trainings, trainings for educators, and suicide prevention cards that encourage youth to seek help from community members when they are experiencing thoughts of suicide.
Both organizations aim to prevent suicide. This single goal is so important that it has an entire month (September) dedicated to recognizing the prevalence, need for resources, and opportunities to intervene before an event occurs. If that doesn’t speak to the importance of suicide prevention, then what does?
Each and every one of us is responsible for creating an environment where suicide is not seen as a viable option. It’s important to speak up about suicide. Stifling the conversation only serves to make suicide seem like something it’s not. Suicide is not an escape from the awful parts of life or a way to win. Suicide is a loss of what could have been and an end to what was. There is no coming back. And that’s why we place so much emphasis on prevention rather than intervention. We can’t stop what has happened, but we sure can stop it from happening in the future. So this September, talk about suicide and prevention because as long as the conversation continues, change will happen.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There are trained professionals that want to talk to you. Even when you think no one is there, there is hope. You’re not alone. We’re here for you.
This past year was Shaler Area High School’s first year and they did not disappoint-AND they’re bringing their Middle School with them this year! This team did an absolutely amazing job organizing and facilitating their projects and it’s been such a pleasure working with their dedicated advisors. Here’s a glimpse of what you missed:
The Semicolon Project (;):
To spark interest in the group and start the conversation about mental health, students placed green posters on every fourth locker to represent the 1 in 4 youth that are affected by a mental or substance use disorder in a given year. The posters read:
Semicolon (;) — where the author could have ended the sentence…but didn’t.
You don’t suffer alone.
Many of their peers were familiar with the Semicolon Project, a national campaign to end suicide, and started asking them about Stand Together and what they were going to do next.
Take a Bite out of Stigma:
Students created an elaborate scheme to get their fellow students to learn about mental health. Students were enticed by the rows of cookies at the ST table, but quickly found out they would not come for free. Instead of coins, the Stand Together team was asking for real change-in thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. To receive a cookie, each student had to reach into a bag and grab a slip of paper. On that paper was a myth and a fact about mental and substance use disorders. Students had to read the statements out loud and were then able to receive a cookie. What a great idea! (Random fact: if you read something out loud, you’re 4x more likely to remember it!)
You’re Not Alone-Look at the Numbers:
Although it was their first year, students decided to do a very intimate activity. Following the basic outline of a ‘truth booth,’ and Steel Valley HS’s project two years ago, the team set-up a stand in the cafeteria. On the table were sticky notes of various colors, each representing a different connection to mental and substance use disorders:
pink-personally affected by mental illness
yellow-personally affected by addiction
blue-know someone affected by mental illness
lime green-know someone affected by addiction
orange-felt excluded or disadvantaged
The participation and the impact were phenomenal. Not only were students using the sticky notes anonymously, as suggested, but some even felt comfortable enough writing the name or relationship of the person they knew that is affected. The most moving piece for me was a lime green sticky that read: Mom RIP 1.28.18, signifying that this individual had lost his mother to death by substance use. It was incredibly powerful seeing the students literally ‘stick it to stigma’ by sharing their own struggles and truly discovered that no one is alone. (On a fun note, they also gave out lollipops as ‘suckers to stop stigma.’ What a creative group! Check out the video below:
I’m so proud of Shaler. The passion of both their advisors and their students is phenomenal and I can’t wait to work with them again this year. I just know they’re going to have another impactful year! See you soon, SAHS team!!!
Steel Valley Middle School has been in our program for several years and their advisor Ryan always works with the students to come up with new and exciting ways to educate their peers. If you remember, last year they had a mental illness dodgeball tournament. Teams named after specific disorders had to research that specific disorder, create a poster with the information they found, and then got to participate in a glow-in-the-dark dodgeball tournament. Talk about creative and fun! This year, SVMS continued their amazing work with several larger projects and many smaller ones.
The biggest hit of the year was their photo booths. The students used several holidays and fun props to attract students to their booth and talk to them about mental and substance use disorders and stigma. This activity also promoted social inclusion by encouraging students to take photos with students they didn’t know. They created mottos for each theme to help the students remember:
Don’t be a grinch-have a heart! 1 out of 5 teens suffer from mental illness. (Christmas)
Poem: I can change the world with my own two hand. Make a better place with my own two hands. Make a kinder place with my own two hands. (MLK Day)
I wear green for someone I’m lucky to know! (St. Patrick’s Day)
The team also did several larger events. One was a ‘No One Eats Alone’ challenge, where students were encouraged to reach out to peers that were sitting by themselves at lunch or sit with someone new (see below). In addition, one of our TA’s, Jordan, came in to spoke to the school about her experiences with anxiety and to share some coping skills before their PSSA tests. The most moving project, entitled ‘I wish you knew…’ Students were given post-it notes and were instructed to right something personal that others might not know about them that has affected their lives. Some students shared mental health and substance use disorders, others shared trauma, and many students talked about feeling peer pressure and feeling alone. This was very impact for the students to see and realize that they were not alone in their struggles and they have more in common than separates them.
The students also gave away bracelets to help the students remember what they had learned at all of the events and had students sign the pledge on a large poster so they could make a visual commitment to ending stigma at their school.
Steel Valley never ceases to amaze us and we look forward to seeing what they come up with this year! See you soon!
Although it was Propel-Braddock Hills Middle School’s first year in the program, advisors Amand and Danielle really worked hard with their students to make it a good one-and they definitely succeeded. This diverse group became a team over the year, student leaders stepped up, and stigma was challenged in their school. They chose the Food 4 Thought toolkit and got to work right away. They finished the year with three unique projects that addressed myths, provided information, and promoted social inclusion.
For their first project, students researched facts on mental illness and substance use disorders. At lunch, they walked around and shared facts with their peers. Students then went to get lemonade and a wristband with #itsokaytonotbeokay after they shared something they learned.
For their second project, students created a myth vs. fact and sorting game on mental illness. The student body identified what was a myth and what was a fact and after successfully completing the game, they received a sports drink and a wristband. There was also a station to sign the pledge.
Lastly, the student leaders created a Kahoot! game to test the student body’s knowledge on mental illness. After the activity, they were able to visit a station to get a “Keep Calm and Stop Stigma” temporary tattoo. (BTW, these were super cool!)
The glow-in-the-dark wristbands were a gentle reminder that #itsokaytonotbeokay and to create a safe environment to stop stigma. So many people are affected by mental illness and many times, they don’t know who to reach out to or how to deal with the symptoms. Educating students and engaging them in a service-learning project encourages students to speak up and work together in way that can-and do-create change. Schools are changing people’s perceptions and view on mental illness in positive ways. Their messages are not only motivational, but educational and engaging.
Props to Propel MS for a prosperous first year! We’re so proud of you!
We can’t believe summer is halfway over and before we know it, Stand Together will begin again! We’re still catching up on blogs and this week, we’re featuring the Environmental Charter School. ECS has been in the program for several years. Their students are always creative, enthusiastic, and passionate and find it easy to reach out their peers to enact change in their school.
They started their projects off with a presentation of facts about mental illness and stigma. They addressed some of the myths surrounding mental illness and introduced their classmates to Stand Together.
Since their project was implement in the colder months, ECS’s had a hot chocolate stand to entice the other students to learn about mental and substance use disorders. Each cup had a fact or important phrase they wanted their peers to know. These included things like:
1 in 4 people will be affected by mental illness.
It’s okay to not be okay.
To help friends, think SHE: support, hope, encourage.
In addition, 1 in 4 cups were labelled in green to signify the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders. The students also created and displayed ‘table tents’ in the cafeteria so that students could learn more.
Their advisors were impressed with the relationships the students developed within their group and how comfortable the group was starting this difficult conversation with their peers. Team members also noticed that students were more open to talking about mental illness, ask questions, and share their stories.
We can’t wait to have ECS back next year for more fun and fellowship and-most importantly-less stigma.
This was Allderdice’s first year and they decided to bring mental health to the forefront of education: the classroom. Instead of having students casually get involved, this group had a captive audience. They worked with teachers to secure ‘training’ periods for all of the freshman classes to expose them to the concepts of mental health and stigma.
Students from the group took turns visiting various classes and giving the presentation. Students share information about mental health conditions and stigma and discussed with their peers the concepts and their relevance to the student body. The group gave examples of stigma and encouraged their peers to talk about mental health and to reach out to each other, whether it be just being there as a friend or talking to an adult when they are worried about themselves or someone else.
The team has also worked with the art department to create a dragon mural (their mascot) that will be used for a school-wide project next year.
The first year’s always the most difficult, but Allderdice’s Stand Together team definitely made an impact and are ready for next year! It’ll be here before you know it!
As we come to the end of Men’s Health Month, I wanted to talk about mental health from my perspective. I hope that in doing so you might find the common thread of human experience that binds us as a society. In writing this, may I first say that I am not an expert on mental health. However, I do get to play one at work each day in my role as a Recovery Specialist. Anyone who knows me will confirm my lack of authority on the topic, so I am in no position to preach to anyone. However, I am quite willing to talk about what I know best, my story. My story is common in the African American male community. You’ve seen it or presumed it, men neglecting their mental health to the detriment of their family, community and society. I was no different, I waited until I was 50 and out of functional relationships to wake up and address a few things.
I am a strong African-American Man. I am the parent of children who have grown up to contribute to the world. I breezed through grad school with a 3.75. I’ve had a success filled career in Education and Mental Health Services that has lasted over 30 years. I coached a high school basketball team that scored 82.0 points per game with only one player over 6’. I was hit by a moving train and walked away relatively unharmed (and because of that). I have earned the right to wear a cape and a big S for ‘superhero’ on my chest.
Also, I am an African American male with a mental illness: depression. I have spent my share of hours in the therapist’s office. I know recovery for me, is a process I must work on daily. At times, it takes a village to keep me on task.
I used to be ashamed and secretive of the reality of having depression, but now I’m proud of the life I live. Now my life is an integrated whole, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
I know that pushing aside the leotard to reveal the inner workings of the person behind the S does not make me any less of a strong African American male. Superhero status is not really required. I cannot save the world and often I am the one who needs saving. Like many people, I once felt that having a mental illness was a sign of weakness. So I avoided treatment.
As a mental health professional, I spent lots of time convincing people otherwise, but when it was my turn I felt going to the psychiatrist was a sign of failure. I tried running, yoga, drinking, smoking, meditation and most of self-help books in the Carnegie Library catalog. Anything but mainstream medical attention. I did not want to go to a psychiatrist because “nothing is wrong with me I’m not crazy!” But I had no issue going to the dentist, my primary care doctor, or orthopedist.
Like many African American males, I stigmatized mental illness in a way we do not stigmatize obesity, diabetes, hypertension and so many chronic and life-threatening illnesses prevalent in our community. We take pills to lose weight or lower our blood pressure but not to get or stay mentally well. According to the mythology that surrounds the strength of African American men, “falling apart” is just not something we do. We survived the Middle Passage, slavery, racial oppression, economic deprivation and a few political campaigns. We know how to “handle our business”, “be a man” but we see therapy as the domain of “weak”, neurotic people who don’t know what “real problems” are.
So how do African American men begin to eliminate the stigma of mental illness so that we can get the help we need and support those who might need it? May I offer a few suggestions?
Talk about it.
Don’t whisper or gossip about it.
Talk about it at the party.
Talk about it at church.
Talk about it on TV/the radio/social media
With our loved ones
With our doctors
If we can talk about our high blood pressure, our asthma, our lung cancer we can talk about our depression. Support each other in getting help. We send friends to the doctor for nagging back pain, so send them to get relief from their mental and emotional pain too. And don’t forget to be a friend and ask them how they are doing from time to time. Don’t stigmatize the brain! It is attached to the body, so mental illness is a physical illness.
Finally, support people who share their stories of mental health disorders. It is time to show that the faces and lives of African Americans with mental illness are not just the faces and the lives of the homeless person talking to the unseen. It is my face and my life and the faces and lives of others just like me. “Coming out” requires courage. Like any other consciousness raising process, a range of role models who represent a variety of experiences with mental illness will change perceptions.
As a local community we have a list of accomplished African American men to inspire us in our various endeavors. Andrew McCutchen, Ju Ju Smith-Schuster and Coach Tomlin come immediately to mind. We need a list of African Americans with mental illness who survived and thrived. No doubt due to stigma it was difficult to find the names of locally well-known African Americans with a “confirmed” history of mental illness and this is not the place for gossip or rumor, so I will start the list with me:
My name is Bill Boyce and I have depression. I am a father, athlete, artist, writer, musician, social activist, mental health professional and as sane and happy a person as you would ever want to meet. My mental health disorder does not define who I am.
-Written by Bill, STU Recovery Specialist
(The images above are African American males that have shared their experiences with mental health conditions: Kid Cudi, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, Wayne Brady, Jay-Z, and Brandon Marshall)
As Pride wraps up for the year, I find myself to proud of how far Pittsburgh has come in supporting its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, etc. (LGBTQ+) population. Pride serves as a platform for LGBTQ+ people to combat the prejudice and discrimination they face on a daily basis with positivity, love and dignity. Seeing an increase in support for Pride from the general public and businesses this year, as well as rainbow lights shining at City Hall, has been a step in the right direction. Thousands marched at Pittsburgh Pride Parade this past Sunday in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
But Pride isn’t something that LGBTQ+ people can turn to for support year round. Therefore, when LGBTQ+ people are targeted and socially discriminated against, it can leads to an increase in suicidal ideation; LGBTQ+ youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide. Fortunately, resources like The Trevor Project [1-866-488-7386] and the Trans Lifeline [(877) 565-8860] provide support for LGBTQ+ youth. Family acceptance and social support also help to protect against mental illness, including depression and anxiety, as well as help to prevent suicidal behavior and substance abuse. In addition, acceptance can allow LGBTQ+ people to have greater access to healthcare resources.
Acceptance is so important when it comes to both LGBTQ+ identities and mental illness because of the stigma attached to both communities. The fear of what others may think if you come out as being LGBTQ+ or having mental illness is bad enough that people don’t get help . Concealing one’s mental health concerns, however, makes it difficult to receive help or be referred to vital resources. This is where a local organization like PERSAD CENTER comes into play.
PERSAD works to connect LGBTQ+ people of all ages to the resources they need. These resources include counseling, affordable services, giving aid to individuals who seek to change their lives (perhaps along the lines of substance abuse recovery), and more. Having an LGBTQ+ centered organization like PERSAD provide counseling is a game changer. People who face stigma both from their LGBTQ+ identity and mental health status can get the help they need without worrying about the social discrimination and prejudice they could face from a regular counselor. PERSAD serves as a safe space. More information about their counseling services can be found by calling 412-441-9786 (Monday-Friday 9am-5pm).
Additional resources like Pride, The Trevor Project, the Trans Lifeline, and PERSAD CENTER provide LGBTQ+ people who lack access to more traditional healthcare resources with the support they need to freely celebrate their identity, overcome adversity, and live a healthier life. The public must support these resources to improving the health of LGBTQ+ people. For more information about The Trevor Project and the Trans Lifeline, please read below.
The Trevor Project [1-866-488-7386] provides support for LGBTQ+ youth under the age of 25 through a 24-hour phone, chat (3pm-10pm daily), and texting (Monday-Friday, 3pm-10pm) services with counselors. The project also offers peer-to-peer support through TrevorSpace.
The Trans Lifeline [(877) 565-8860] is specifically geared towards transgender people who are going through a crisis, dealing with gender identity confusion and self-harm prevention. The Trans Lifeline is a phone line open 18 hours daily (11am to 5am).
Stand Together went in to the Academy last fall to begin training on stigma, mental illness, and substance abuse. This was my first time facilitating a training so I was a bit nervous! As we began the day, I began to see how emotionally mature these students were and how much they truly know already about stigma. We discussed many relevant stereotypes seen in society, and I enjoyed every single student’s input. I could tell that this subject was something they were passionate about, and I knew they would have an awesome year!
One activity we did that they seemed to really enjoy was the “Common Ground” activity where someone stands in the middle and says, “I see common ground with…,” then everyone who the statement applies to must get up and move to a different chair. Even though at times it got competitive, the students really saw how much more they have in common with others than different.
I returned to the Academy this spring to check out the student’s projects. I came on the day they were implementing their “Cup of Cheer” project. This entailed putting inspirational quotes onto cups and stuffing the cups with coffee, tea, a Stand Together bookmark, and a jelly bracelet that said Stand Together. The students also created a “calm down” room at their school. Inside the room was a mural that the students painted, giving hope and positivity to the students who come into the room needing a break.
I am extremely proud of all the hard work these students did this past year. It was amazing to see them work together on accomplishing such an important goal, ending stigma! Thank you, the Academy! 😊