Posts Tagged change

Guest Blog: Finding Humanity Amidst the Chaos (Julius Boatwright)

Guest Blog: Finding Humanity Amidst the Chaos (Julius Boatwright)

We are honored that Mr. Boatwright has agreed to compose a special blog about community written specifically for Men’s Mental Health Month 2020. (More about Julius can be found after the blog.)

While we’re living in the midst of a public health pandemic and seeing some of the most wretched police brutality happen, it can be difficult for us to honor the humanity in other people. Every time we scroll through social media, we don’t have to look far to find someone making a divisive comment that alienates a group of people who are already marginalized. When we’re bombarded with these messages, it can be challenging for us to see the good in people as human beings.

As most of us know, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on film. It’s important because the way he died was different than how other Black people have while in police custody. Watching an officer apply the weight of his body on George’s neck until he became lifeless was a shock to our souls. This was long, drawn-out, and heart-breaking. There are hundreds of folks who have been murdered during routine interactions with law enforcement. As a society, we’ve become desensitized to seeing someone murdered on video by officers. With George Floyd though, that desensitization was reset.

Then, something different began to happen across the globe. On social media, we started to see people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds coming together to impact change. At protests, white bodies placed themselves on the front lines to protect Black people. Companies began to donate millions of dollars to Black-led organizations doing work at the grassroots level. Politicians began to stand in solidarity with Black activists fighting against police brutality.

What happened to George Floyd, coupled with the world’s heightened emotions due to COVID-19, put people in a place where they finally said, enough is enough.

Does this mean that racism is over, police brutality will stop, and humanity is saved? We have a long way to go before we reach that point.


I believe that every day, people are beginning to see that Black people deserve to be loved, valued, and appreciated like everyone else in the world.

After losing my best friend from college to suicide years ago, I knew that honoring people’s humanity was part of my greater purpose. We have feelings and emotions. We go through trials and tribulations. We experience joys and successes. All of these things are part of being a human.

I hope that we continue to honor this sentiment when no one’s watching and the cameras stop flashing. I envision a future in which we don’t have to advocate for people to believe in humanity. I believe that as humans, there’s goodness in all of us.

I believe we have the power to stand up to racism and bigotry together for the betterment of our society. The younger generation is rising to the occasion and driving this movement in a sustainable, transformative direction. We should all be excited about how systems and archaic policies are being challenged right before our eyes. The revolution is happening today and it’s a beautiful experience to witness.

In solidarity,
Julius

About the writer: Julius Boatwright is a licensed social worker and Founder/CEO of Steel Smiling, a local organization that bridges the gap between Black community members and mental health support through education, advocacy, and awareness. Mr. Boatwright’s work engages Black communities in the Pittsburgh area and throughout the country to create connections and address the specific challenges they face. His personal experiences, education/background, and passion for addressing trauma and mental health have overflowed into a range of services to help Black children, youth, and families learn about mental health, share stories about their experiences, and strive to collectively heal.

Special thanks to Julius for sharing a part of himself and his wisdom in this meaningful blog. You can learn more about Steel Smiling at their website and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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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 (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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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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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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S. Allegheny Soars Above Stigma

S. Allegheny Soars Above Stigma

South Allegheny Middle School Gladiators are back again to dismantle stigma towards mental health and substance use disorders in their school.

It’s training day! New students as well as returning members filed into the library to take part in the two-day training. Early in the morning, students were quiet and shy, but after a round of ice-breakers, introductions, and some snacks, the students started to warm-up to each other. Returning members supported their peers with the knowledge they had retained from last year in review games. They definitely finished the first workshop strong!

The ideas about changing their school environment flowed in the ‘What I want my peers and staff to know…’ section. This group of youth really wanted the adults around them to partner as allies and provide a ‘shoulder to lean on’ if they were feeling down or in need of help. Reflecting on last year, they also want their peers to take mental health and stigma seriously. Stigma is so ingrained in our culture and it can be difficult to change, but these students are going to fight it!

The South Allegheny team plans on hosting a truth booth-with a twist! They’re one of our first middle schools to ever hold this kind of event! The Truth Booth project is a great way to anonymously share what one may be struggling with or even show support for someone you know that may be affected by a mental illness or substance use disorder. Their ‘What Color Are Your Feathers?’ event will allow both students and staff to select feathers of support to motivate their peers to ‘show their true colors’ and ‘lift one another up.’ The feathers will be color-coded and each color will represent a way to stop stigma, discuss a mental health diagnosis, or write-in a supportive message. Students will drop them in a box to be collected. Once the event is complete, the team will create a beautiful mural of all the feathers to be displayed in the middle school, along with a pledge banner to end stigma.

The Stand Together team will also bring back, ‘Send Stigma Spinning.’ In this activity, participants will spin a wheel to answer a question or decipher a myth from a fact. This will give their peers an opportunity to learn more about mental health and stigma-and a chance to win a prize! Check out that awesome pic above from last year.

The ideas continued and team members identified their own personal ways they were going to take down stigma. Many students decided to challenge themselves by paying more attention to the language they use, as well as sharing the information they had learned with their family and friends. Students also shared a specific contribution they are going to make to their projects over the rest of the school year based on their skills and talents. They were two full days, but they were full of stigma-stopping power-and that’s what gladiators are made of!

Way to go, South Allegheny MS! Keep up the good work-every year it gets even better! We can’t wait to see your projects in action. You’re going to make such an impact in your school!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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Mental Health Advocacy & Me-ST Youth take on Legislation

Mental Health Advocacy & Me-ST Youth take on Legislation

We often hear: ‘Youth are our future.’ As cliche as it sounds, it’s 100% true. Change starts with you and YOUth across Allegheny County are paving the way for mental health education, resources, and parity by meeting with local legislators to discuss the future of mental health in our area.

Stand Together staff had the pleasure of assisting the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and PA Youth Advocacy Network in planning and implementing the Youth Mental Health Advocacy Workshop on Tuesday, March 3 during the Dan Miller Disability Awareness Summit-but the students did all the work. Members of Stand Together teams from CAPA, Montour, West Allegheny, and West Mifflin high schools joined students from other schools to gather their perspectives on teen mental health and work together to identify issues, formulate questions, and propose suggestions to advocate for mental health. Afterwards, the students had the opportunity to discuss their findings with members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate.

Team leads walked their groups through concerns and opportunities, current and proposed policies/bills, and the importance of youth voice in government. These weren’t easy issues either! Students discussed:
-Addressing disparities in mental health;
-Creating safe, inclusive school communities;
-Educating teachers and students on mental health;
-Equality in support for mental and physical health; and
-Promoting suicide prevention and awareness.
Stand Together’s goals address many of these areas: increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and reach out to an adult (which requires adequate training for staff and faculty). Because of this, Stand Together team members brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the tables that day!

Our students made some really introspective and keen observations and remarks:
-‘It’s important to talk about mental health just as much as physical health in school…it needs to be stressed and ‘normalized.’ – Emma Dischner (HB 1696: Mental Health Parity)
-‘The media needs to stop making suicide look like a way out.’ – Angela Brown, West A (SB 199: Suicide Prevention & Awareness)
-‘Females tend to get more mental health attention in schools. Talking about mental health is a ‘choice,’ but because of the culture of toxic masculinity, it’s also not a choice. ‘Treatment’ is for the behaviors, not the cause (mental health)…A big part of it is changing the cultre surrounding mental health and making small changes.’ – Aiden Magley, CAPA (Federal: HRes480: Disparities in Mental Health)
-‘It should be a conversation between youth and staff what Act 71 (suicide prevention education) looks like in schools. – Emma Dischner (HB 590: Ed. for Teachers & Students in MH)
-A student from Montour agreed: ‘Teachers are afraid to reach out to students because they don’t know how to or are afraid to.’

The legislators were invested and had much to add:
-‘You can’t reach your potential unless this issue of mental health is addressed.’ – Sen. Pam Iovino
-‘What’s more important as a parent? That my son has a cavity or a mental health issue?…I think it (mental health) should be prioritized…We’re bringing students together, but we’re not talking about it enough and this can cause social isolation. We need to teach all health in fullness and connect people together.’ – Rep. Dan Miller
-‘We need more human-centered policies that have real-world application (about the people, not the numbers). Engagement of students and citizens is so important.’ – Rep. Sara Innamorato

Students and legislators discussed a lot of key issues, but this is just the start. We need to keep talking about mental health in our schools and communities and advocate in government for policy reform and support. We will continue to support our students as they speak up and speak out against stigma and build a youth mental health advocacy movement that will change our county for years to come.

‘Keep it going…you are just as much our constituents as your parents are. Keep using your voice.’

-State Senator Lindsey Williams

Written by Danyelle, ST Coordinator & JHF planning team member

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Shaler MS is On Their Way

Shaler MS is On Their Way

Middle school can be a challenging time, especially if someone has a mental and/or substance use disorder. Shaler Area Middle School wants to decrease the stigma associated with these conditions by increasing education and awareness and promoting social inclusion. This is the group’s second year in the program and it was great to see some familiar faces as well as meet new additions to the team.

Even though the students had already attended their first classes for the day, it took a little effort to wake them up. To get them moving, we kick-off with an exercise that not only gets the blood flowing, but teaches them something along the way. Students are directed to jump up and down 10 times while whispering their favorite colors. Obviously, participants at opposite ends of the room wouldn’t be able to hear each other, but just because the other student couldn’t hear it, didn’t mean that person didn’t have a favorite color. This is a lot like mental and substance use disorders-just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Students learned not only about the definitions and prevalence of these conditions, but, more importantly, how they affect individuals outside the symptoms of the disorder. Students learned about the impact of stigma on their peers-and what they can do to help. W.H.A.P.P. was introduced to help students recognize the signs that someone may be struggling and students used S.H.E. in scenarios to think about how they would help a peer that was struggling by providing support, hope, and encouragement and reaching out to an adult they trust when they are worried about themselves or someone else. Students also got to know each other better and realized they had more in common than they thought, creating a sense of unity in the group and reaffirming their commitment to the program and each other.

After completing their first day of training, students were ready to start using the education and experiences to design projects to decrease stigma in their school. Students were excited to included food (because who doesn’t like getting free food) again this year and also expand on myths and facts. The group also wants their peers to be more aware that a lot of people struggle with these disorders and #itsokaytonotbeokay. They want to create a culture of acceptance and support where their peers feel welcome and know that they matter. The support of family and friends is so important in recovery and for wellness and the more we engage others, the more we create relationships that foster connection and trust. When these qualities exist, people feel comfortable talking about their experiences, sharing their feelings, and reaching out for help. And that’s what Stand Together is all about.

By the end of the day, I was really impressed with the groups innovative ideas and slogans and lofty goals for the year. Their passion will only help propel them forward as they continue planning and implement their projects. Hopscotch, paper chains, popsicles, and Kahoot! will all be used to entice their peers and further their anti-stigma message in a fun, but purposeful way. Personally I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so that we can ‘Freeze Away Stigma,’ but that’s just me…

These group is sure to change minds, hearts, and even lives by challenging myths and bringing their peers together to end stigma. We look forward to another year at SAMS and can’t wait to see your projects grow!

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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TJHS: S.H.-and Lots of Empathy!

TJHS: S.H.-and Lots of Empathy!

The Stand Together program welcomes another newcomer to our line-up of schools: Thomas Jefferson High School! Welcome!

The group had their first official ST workshops on two Tuesdays in December, however they had already been meeting as a group in preparation for the training, discussing their thoughts about mental health and brainstorming ideas to end stigma in their school. This group came together on their training days eager to get started, but a bit timid. That would quickly change!

After setting clear ‘community agreements’ to create a ‘safe space,’ the students began to ease into team-building and education. The first workshop was all formal training about mental illness, substance use disorders, and the effects of stigma. Not only did TJHS learn new information about mental health and wellness, they also learned new things about one another.

During the ‘Cross the Line’ activity, the group shared they were surprised to share some of the same struggles as their peers. Stand Together members also noticed it was a challenge to share their concerns; they care a lot about what their peers are going through and didn’t want to add any more stress onto others. Group members shared how much they feel sad when they see other peers and staff going through hard times and they want to use this program to really change the culture of their school.

Thinking about what they learned at the first workshop, the students came up with a list of very important information they wanted their peers and staff to know, including:
-taking mental and substance use disorders seriously
-knowing that #youarenotalone if you struggle with something
-don’t be afraid to #talkaboutit!
The group brain-stormed different ideas to create their anti-stigma projects. One idea was a popcorn stand during lunch periods. They wanted it to be interactive with a trivia game wheel and different colored popcorn that featured the 1:4 ratio of individuals affected by these disorders. They also discussed having a school-wide assembly to raise awareness about mental health and stigma. Not only do ST members want to get the right facts out to their peers, this group also wants their teachers and staff to feel comfortable enough to check-in on the students they interact with daily. TJHS is really tackling a lot of issues in their first year!

Empathy is a huge part of the TJHS motto and this project’s theme. With this ‘super-power’ in their toolkit, we have no doubt their first year in Stand Together will have a lasting impression on their school.

Welcome to the club! We’re happy to have you and excited to see your projects!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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