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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.
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
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
Stand Together welcomes Gateway Middle School to our line-up of participants this year. Our new team is just as excited as we are to start removing the stigma around mental health in their school and community.
Two Thursdays in January, students strolled into their LGI space to partake in our training workshops. Some students knew each other, but mostly the group was full of students who built new connections with their classmates. As the day went on, the team-building activities and games removed any uncertain and shy feelings they may have had in the morning and the group was really coming together.
This group held nothing back when asking questions about the myths and facts and mental health diagnoses. Most, if not all, of the students felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings about the stigma surrounding mental health and discussed the myths most often heard in their school environment. As the training went on, it was clear the students retained the important information given to them as they blazed through the review games with flying colors. During the end of the first workshop, we also had the opportunity to talk about some of the challenges youth face when they feel alone or someone may be struggling. What an impressive first day!
A bond was already being built with this group the first day, which only helped them bounce right back into action for our second workshop. They returned ever more excited to start planning their projects. Day 2 had so many ideas flowing that it was hard to keep up with all the possibilities! The team broke into small groups as they selected a toolkit idea to really focus on. These three groups shared with the large group their plans for an anti-stigma event. A 1:4 theme (the ratio of youth affected by mental and substance use disorders) was laced through each project idea, reflecting Stand Together’s goal of education and awareness. Cookies & milk, slushies, and a variety of snacks made the list of ideas as well.Catchy slogans, like ‘Stigma belongs in the dirt!’ and ‘sNOw Stigma!’ helped to connect the activity back to the treat they planned to reward their classmates with after they participated.
These students were so excited to keep project planning, they continued their brain-storming session long after our team wrapped up for the day! With all this motivation and passion propelling this group forward, we can’t wait to see the events they finally decide on for their school. Gateway MS is more than eager to end stigma. What a fantastic way to start your first year-keep up the great work. Welcome to the family!
Written by Montaja, trainer
Stand Together trained it first ever all-boys schools this past December. This group may of been a little rowdy and a little wild, but they were a whole lot of fun and were clearly passionate about talking about mental health and ending stigma in their schools and communities.
Although the schools’ boys separated themselves at first, both by school and grade, and were quite quiet, they quickly broke down barriers and had a lot to say! That’s a good thing-we want our students to feel comfortable ‘speaking up and speaking out’ about mental and substance use disorders to increase awareness and decrease stigma. This group was ready and willing to share their own personal experiences, ask questions, and really dig into the topics at hand.
The activities were a wild ride! As boys tend to be-each activity became a competition, which made the day quite interesting, but exciting. The youth really enjoyed anytime there was a buzzer or ball, were pretty excited about the ‘bonus prizes,’ and were not only intense, but intimate with each other as well. As Rabbi Hoen explained to the youth, there is a passage in their scriptures about how it’s not healthy to keep in struggles and it’s important to seek the counsel of others. This directly parallels what we’re doing in Stand Together: encouraging youth to #talkaboutit (their struggles) and reach out to an adult they trust when they are worried about themselves or someone else. Rabbi Hoen’s statement really resonated with the students and motivated them even further in their work.
Armed with knowledge and quick wit, the students were ready to start project planning at their second workshop. The students broke into 4 groups: 2 for each school and 2 for each grade-level (MS/HS). The boys had so many ideas, it was hard to whittle it down to just a few projects, but they left the second day with concrete plans:
–Hillel Boys MS‘s 1:4 Color War with trivia, competition, and prizes
–Hillel Boys HS‘s: F-WHAPP Fanny Exchange Program (fanny packs-just you wait!) and Tea with Teachers
–Yeshiva Boys MS/HS: This school did something different. Although each grade-level group came up with a project, both groups will do the same projects in their respective schools. They planned to hold a Do-nut Stigmatize stand and a What’s WHAPP? video. Afterwards, the students will test their peers’ knowledge by asking them myths/facts to win a prize.
These students really came up with some amazing ideas and even more creative slogans to go with them! They’re sure to entice their peers to participate and start talking about mental health and stigma!
I was sad to leave the group after the training, but I knew I was leaving them in good hands and with solid plans moving forward. This group is committed to leaving their schools and communities better than they found them and working together to reduce stigma so that more people can get the help that they need. We can’t wait to see these projects in action! See you soon!
Written by Danyelle, coordinator
We’re pleased to welcome Deer Lakes High School to the Stand Together program this year! Having worked with this school district in a previous position, I was anxious to return and see how things have changed since then-and maybe run into a few of my old students along the way! That didn’t end up happening, but I did meet an amazing group of youth that were full of passion, laughter, and love.
Although slow to start (they are teenagers and it was early in the day), they quickly gained energy and momentum as we went through the exercises. It was a very a diverse group and students were eager to participate, learn, and get to know each other throughout the two training workshops. They asked a lot of questions, came up with a bunch of great ideas, and made some new friends along the way.
As you can see, the group had so much fun. All I could see were smiles, hear was laughter, and feel the excitement as the youth participated in activities to learn more about mental and substance use disorders and stigma and come together as a group:
-4 Corners: the classifications, effects, and examples of substances
-Ships’n’Sailors: understanding the feelings of isolation and consequences of stigma
-WHAPP! learning how to recognize the most common signs and symptoms of mental and substance use disorders
-Sparkle: put it all together to review and reiterate that mental illness is not a choice (1:4 students don’t even have a chance to answer a question)
-WWYD? students role-play in various scenarios to recognize the signs and symptoms, respond, and provide SHE (support, hope, and encouragement)
-Common Ground: a kind of ‘musical chairs’ to find similarities between the students
-The Big Five: the most important pieces of our training: 1) You matter; 2) You’re not alone; 3) SHE; 4) 1 in 4; 5) WHAPP.
Recognizing the signs, spreading awareness and promoting social inclusion, and knowing how to respond are how Stand Together stops stigma. And we know these Lancers are going to slay.
The second day was an amazing experience. The students couldn’t wait to share their ideas and plan projects to stop stigma in their school. Utilizing the education and experiences they obtained in the first workshop, students focused on what they thought their peers and staff should know. Then they viewed some project examples-and the juices were flowing! There were so many ideas, they might run out of time this year! So much to do, so little time!
The group settled on plans for a kick-off assembly with a recovery speaker, 1:4 visual, and Kahoot! trivia, as well as three definite events to be held throughout the year: a myth/fact spinning wheel, a rubber ducky pool/pull, and a balloon release to visualize the 1:4 ratio and unite by sharing their own experiences with mental and substance use disorders. The group plans to track these balloons to see their impact after they let them go as well, as they release not only their challenges, but also information to the greater community.
One of my favorite parts of the day is when students think about their own interests and talents and commit to contributing a specific skill to the project:
We absolutely cannot wait to see these projects in action! I’m so excited to be able to share my story with the students and staff at the assembly and be a part of this amazing experience. Keep an eye out for posts on January 30th!
Written by Danyelle, coordinator
Stand Together is excited to welcome two more new schools this year. From Pittsburgh’s very own Jewish Community in Squirrel Hill: Hillel Academy and Yeshiva girls’ schools! Due to a generous grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and other supporters, we were able to expand to all five (!) schools in this community.
Both schools trained together at Hillel this past November, right before the holiday. Students filed into the training space quiet and curious, but that didn’t last very long! The students got warmed-up to the topics discussed and enjoyed competing in the trivia games that aided in review. It was a busy two days! Laughter, team-building, and deep discussion happened with ease. These young ladies ranged in age and grade levels from 7th through 12th grades. As each training day went on, they discovered fascinating things they had in common with one another, much deeper than their obvious connection with culture and religion.
Although the community is very tight knit, the students still had to get to know each other better as they attend different schools. The teams learned more about themselves, the Stand Together program, and their trainer, Montaja. As each topic of the day was discussed, students started to speak more openly about their personal thoughts about the stigma surrounding mental and substance use disorders. These young ladies weren’t afraid to ‘Speak up!’ and ‘Speak out!’ about how challenging it is to reach out for help even with adults they trust around them. Without hesitation, the students created a long list of things that they’d like their peers and staff to know about mental health and stigma. Some of the things they mentioned included:
-Mental illness is invisible.
-Having a mental and/or substance use disorder is not ‘wrong.’
-Therapy is okay for anyone and everyone.
By the second training workshop, both schools were ready to plan and design their projects. After viewing other schools’ ideas and discussing some challenges they may have to work around due to the size and culture of their school, both groups put together solid ideas to carry out their project and the Stand Together mission.
Hillel Academy girls’ team are working on a year-long theme that will ‘bar the stigma.’ They’re going to kick-off the year with a hot drink bar to ‘scorch the stigma…not your tongue!’ This clever project will host a table decorated with myths, facts, and other information to start the conversation about mental and substance use disorders and stigma. To incentive their peers and staff to enjoy a cozy cup of tea or cocoa during the cold winter months and start talking about mental health.
Yeshiva girls are planning on using the Stand Together acronyms as a way to start the conversation:
-W.H.A.P.P. (signs & symptoms: withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, personality change, and poor self-care)
-S.T.I.G.M.A. (examples of stigma: stereotyping, teasing, inappropriate language, myths, and attitude)
-S.H.E. (how to help: support, hope, encourage)
Their event includes a drink stand to further educate their peers and staff, focusing on how mental and substance use disorders are invisible and effect everyone.
It’s clear to see both schools are off to a great start. They are more than excited to get the facts out to their student body. What a way to start your first year! Welcome to the club-we can’t wait to see your projects roll out!
Written by Montaja, trainer