Mid-October, as the leaves were falling and the weather was changing, Allderdice HS (PPS) Dragons linked up for their Stand Together training. Dice is no stranger to the project, however with the graduation of their upper-class members, new faces graced the group, wowing us with how much information they retained about mental health and substance use disorders.
This group might be small, but they are MIGHTY! Students participated fully in the activities during the trainings and helped their teammates in review trivia games. Not only did they open up about their own experiences, they also discovered how much they had in common.
The project ideas were flowing with no shortage of creativity. Stand Together students brain-stormed many ideas through-out the workshops, from food events to fair days to staff-student activities. One idea the group is excited to work on is a 1:4 day by bringing mental health and substance use awareness to their fellow classmates; they plan to use visuals in their hallways and stairwells on all the different floors to help students understand the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders. Each level will provide information about a specific disorder. They also want to connect with the teachers and staff this year and use their ‘truth booth’ idea to help create a safe space for everyone, including students and adults, to communicate more effectively. At the end of the day, the group was ready to finalize their meeting times so they could get started putting their plans into action.
Dice Dragons are here to stay to ‘flush the stigma away!’ (Project preview?!) They may be small, but they’ve got heart! Here’s to another exciting year of changing their school culture!
Earlier in October the Stand Together team at Oakland Catholic HS met to learn more about mental and substance use disorders, how to help, and how to stop stigma. This is OC’s second year in the program and they are ready to come back and build on the progress they’ve made with their scrunchies against stigma and cookies that crumbled away stigma by promoting education and awareness. One student remarked: ‘Some of my friends deal with mental health issues and they were more open to talk about it at school because of the projects that the club put together.’ They are definitely off to a good start!
This team has great passion and urgency to advocate for change in their schools and communities. Students asked though-provoking and introspective questions during the trainings and had such a good time engaging in the games and activities while learning about the topics and each other. By the end of the second day, the group had the education, experience, and group cohesion to start thinking about their projects.
The team had so much enthusiasm on the second day and couldn’t wait to start tossing out ideas and planning their projects. The group had so many ideas it was hard to narrow it down, but by the end of the day they decided to focus on forming relationships with staff and increasing awareness of the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders and that no one is alone in their struggles. The group wants to plan an active discussion between the team and staff/faculty and produce a video that includes students and staff sharing their own personal experiences.
The students still want to explore creating a ‘truth booth’ styled project, but had so many suggestions, they weren’t sure which way to go! We form bonds and increase social inclusion when we connect with each other and realize that we have more in common than we think. ‘Truth booth’ projects really help individuals see these concepts visually and in action.
At the end of the day, the group couldn’t wait to get started finalizing their plans and start implementing their projects in their school. They’re excited to see the changes they will be making in their school environment and culture and make strides in ‘soaring over stigma’ in their community.
Earlier this month, our team headed to West Mifflin Area High School to train their students. WMHS is no stranger to Stand Together-the program is 7 years young and West Mifflin has been with us from the beginning. Although the group members and numbers have changed over the years (at one point they had 74 on the team!), their passion, commitment, and leadership has never wavered.
The first day of training is always an interesting time because a lot of the students don’t know each other. WMHS, like many of our schools, uses an application process to select their students. Students are selected for their interest in mental health and decreasing stigma and their desire to enact change. Because any one can apply and the applications are reviewed anonymously, there’s guaranteed to be a very diverse group of students and this year was no different. There were members from all areas of the student body, students with leadership potential, and even some youth that have been personally connected with mental health and substance use disorders. We consider this a privilege and a valuable experience that adds to the depth of our teams.
This day was filled with fun activities, new friendships, laughter, and even some tears. The students explored the types of mental disorders and substances, brainstormed how to help peers who are struggling, and learned more about each other. Students connected through shared experiences and left the day empowered to address the stigma in their schools.
If the first day was full of information, the second day was packed with the students’ project ideas! Small groups came up with dozens of suggestions and additions jumped back and forth as they built on the foundations of vague ideas and dreams of a world without stigma. Students came up with ideas to increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and build relationships with staff and faculty so that students felt comfortable reaching out to an adult they trusted when they were worried about themselves or someone else. By the end of the day, they had at least six solid plans, including mental health a-WEAR-ness events with pjs, socks, and ribbons, reviving the infamous glo-dance, and even a unique take on meeting students where they are. (Spoiler alert: they’re putting something on the ground so students look up (literally) to support and hopeful messages! << We can’t wait to see this one!)
All in all our team had an amazing couple of days with this group. They always bring their A-game and we know they’ll engage their peers in creative and educational ways all year-long. Thanks for another great training, WMHS! We’ll be out to see your projects soon!
If you’re familiar with North Allegheny, you know that it’s a HUGE school district. This can seem daunting, but it gives our students the chance to impact even more youth in their community! As it was their first year, the advisors started recruitment with students from their SADD club, students that were passionate about making a difference and making their school a better place. And what a better place to start then with students that are motivated to enact change!
This year’s team implemented a visual for their peers, classroom presentations to all the physical education classes (which included pretty much every one in the school at some point), and a lemonade stand at a NA district event. The students created suspense, educated their peers, and extended their reach beyond the walls of their school to the community at large. The group also documented their activities on Twitter @NASHSADD and #stand2getherNASH.
NAHS has a very large building with several stairwells that are constantly flooded with students. The team decided to take advantage of this by placing green tape on every fourth step to represent the 1 in 4 individuals that are affected by a mental and/or substance use disorder in a given year. They purposely didn’t advertise or provide any explanation for the project to peak their peers interest in the seemingly random decorations on the stairs. The next day, however, posters and flyers plastered the walls and the principal made an announcement to explain the meaning behind the project.
The group presented a PowerPoint of Myths and Facts and educational pieces to share with their classmates. This presentation focused on the signs and symptoms of mental and substance use disorders, the definition of stigma and the impact it has on youth, and how students can support their peers and Stand Together. ‘End Mental Health Stigma’ wristbands were distributed for students to remember the event and handed out Resolve crisis services wallet cards. Students reminded the groups that although they might not take the cards seriously right then, they never know when they might need it. This was a very powerful, strong finish to the presentation.
Even more powerful was the student-produced video showed during the presentations. In this film, students and faculty members alike shared their personal experiences with mental health challenges and the stigma they’ve faced. Some of the biggest discouragers of stigma is called ‘the first person narrative,’ in which individuals are exposed to and hear from individuals that are living with or have been affected by mental and/or substance use disorders. Students realize that they are not alone in their struggles, that they have more in common than separates them, and that individuals with these disorders are ‘people-first,’ that just happen to have a mental health challenge, just like someone might have a physical challenge and shouldn’t be discriminated against. It was a very powerful demonstration of the bravery and strength of individuals in their own school that are living successfully with these conditions.
The ST team concluded the year by giving away ‘lemon-aid’ at their district-wide diversity celebration event, which included groups from many different ethnicities, different abilities, and social groups. One out of every four cups of lemonade was pink to reinforce the 1 in 4 message. Walk-ups to the table were asked questions about some of the myths surrounding mental health and stigma in order to enjoy a free cup of lemonade. The students also played their video presentation and distributed Stand Together informational handouts, including the STIGMA acronym, Words Matter!, and How to Help a Peer. Although they didn’t reach many that night, it was heartening to me see conversations between our team, parents, and their children about mental health.
For their first year, NA did an absolutely fantastic job. Faculty, staff, administration, the student body, and the ST team members were moved by their participation. One youth in the program said:
The whole experience was really eye-opening. Going through training, and then giving presentations I learned a lot of things that I would probably never have known. And since, I have been trying to make changes in my everyday life and trying to help others in an effort to end the stigma. If I could’ve participated for more years, I would have. I will take what I learned with me through the rest of my life.
Their school principal even attended our Recognition Event and was singing the praises of their students:
Our students used a creative approach while bringing recognition to stigmas related to mental health. Their approach captured the interest of our entire student body and had a significant impact on the manner our students process their perceptions of those being treated for mental health challenges.
Thank you, NA, for your passion and commitment. We can’t wait to see what you come up with next year-and bring on your Intermediate school too!
Shaler Area High School definitely took it up a notch this year with meaningful, intimate activities that promoted awareness, social inclusion, and help-seeking behaviors. Students advertised and shared information with colorful posters, enticed individuals to participate with visuals and treats, and helped students understand and make connections to experiences of mental health conditions and stigma.
In the fall, the team kicked-off the year with a 1:4 visual that not only represented the ratio of individuals affected by mental and/or substance use disorders, but also promoted social inclusion by presenting awareness of others’ struggles and insecurities. Students were given a slip of paper and instructed to write down an insecurity they experience. One in four slips were green to create a visual of the statistic. After the activity, the slips were connected to form paper chains to signify that we are all connected despite our differences and many of us are struggling with the same insecurities. The chain was displayed on the school balcony for everyone to see.
The next event lured students into the library to participate in several activities that allowed students to experience what it may feel like to be an individual experiencing a mental health condition. At one station, students were given stacks of books to represent the stressors in one’s life and how that when they add up, they eventually become too much to bear. They also symbolized the ‘heaviness’ of each tasks that ‘weights down’ a person’s day. In another area, students were given headphones that played a wave of self-destructive thoughts while they were asked to engage with one of the team members. It was difficult for the students to hold a conversation when distracted by the voices, especially when they were very critical and antagonizing. The last station was a replication of an activity we do during the workshops in which students are asked to hold their breath until they no longer can stand it (safely). Students are reminded that the feelings of panic (rapid heart beat, fear, light-headedness, etc.) were examples of how someone might feel when experiencing a panic attack and how difficult it would be if you were having those sensations while at school or with friends. Students that participated were rewarded with candy and entered into a raffle to win one of six gift cards. This was a very impactful activity that allowed students to ‘walk in the shoes’ of someone that may be struggling with something that they don’t even know.
The team’s last activity in March was a twist on the truth booth: The Truth Tree. As the title of this blog suggests, the students were attacking stigma with leaves that participating students wrote down how stigma and mental and/or substance use disorders have affected their lives. On the front of the ‘booth’ was the elaborate tree frame with a back to display the trees and form the activity area in the back. Students were summoned to the privacy of the activity area to write down their experience (anonymously) and then stuck the leaf on the front of the backdrop for other students to view. The staff and students that participated were very open and honest and there were a lot of moving and difficult items shared on the leaves. Students revealed their personal struggles, concerns, and experiences in a safe way and the result was a feeling of support, a sense of togetherness, and a realization that we are all affected by stigma, no matter who we are. Students were given a ticket to get a brownie to thank them for their willingness to engage in a very revealing, personal activity. Students also shared information about the Student Assistance Program (SAP), mental and substance use disorder myths/facts, and Resolve Crisis cards for students to take with them in case they would ever need them for themselves or someone they knew. The school social worker was also on-hand to encourage relationships between adults and students, especially those providing mental health services at school.
I struggle, too…
How can I help?
We were so impressed with the creativity, vulnerability, and passion of this year’s team at SAHS. Their innovative projects and inclusive activities are sure to be creating a more safe, welcoming atmosphere for students regardless of whether or not they have mental and/or substance use challenges. Thanks, again, Shaler. You’re showing us that youth aren’t afraid to speak up and speak out about stigma and share their stories to encourage others. Kudos.
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!
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!
Avonworth High Schools’ interest in Stand Together was many months in the making. After meeting with their SAP team for the first time last February, Lacey and I facilitated mini-sessions at their Teen Summit to introduce the students to mental health, stigma, and Stand Together. We were incredibly impressed by their emotional intelligence and almost every group had a student share their experiences. It was moving for both the students and our staff. I couldn’t wait to work with this group!
Another diverse group, the students really enjoyed getting to know each other outside of the classroom. Activities such as ‘Candy Gram’ encourage students to learn more about another participant and find qualities, interests, and views they share. Candy is randomly distributed and students have to find their ‘match.’ Then, they have three minutes to find three things they have in common. The catch: they can’t be obvious! (i.e. same school/grade, visible traits, etc.) More often than not, students can find more than three items to share with the rest of the group in just that short amount of time. Although a simple exercise, this activity really increases the students’ ability and experience of social inclusion.
In addition, this was the first time our new assistant Ami shared her recovery story with the group. Many students could relate to her experiences and life choices and it greatly made an impact. We’ve found that exposure to a first-person narrative of someone with lived experience with a mental and/or substance use disorder is the most effective way to challenge stigma. This part of the day also lends itself to the afternoon’s activities, in which students participate in activities where they are asked to be vulnerable with each other. The workshop experience is incredibly important to the cohesiveness of the group and the success of Stand Together; students not only learn the information and concepts they need to facilitate activities with their peers, but they also experience the ideals of social inclusion and a warm, compassionate school culture, where students feel free to be who they are and to get the help they need when they’re struggling.
Although their first year, the students and advisors challenged themselves to facilitate three informative activities to increase education and awareness in their student body as well as with staff. Members will kick-off their year by meeting with classes to introduce the students to Stand Together and expose them to some of the myths and facts surrounding mental and substance use disorders. Their next activity focuses on S.H.E. (support, hope, and encouragement) and encourages and educates their peers on how to provide S.H.E. to their fellow classmates when they are experiencing mental health challenges-and of course, the team will use food to draw them in! (It works!) The team will also engage others in a make-shift photo booth with decorations and facts about mental health and substance use disorders to review what the students have learned in the other activities. Then the students will create a collage with the photos to display when the event is complete. We’re sure they’re really going to make a dent in stigma!
Congrats, Avonworth, on a great training and we look forward to an amazing year!