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.
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)
Arsenal MS is no stranger to Stand Together, but this year they definitely amped up their game. Although they are a small group, they are mighty and the diversity really propels the group to explore MH in a new way.
Stand Together students held three Kool-Aid Stands (‘Aid’-like assistance, get it? haha) this past Spring to promote access to resources and social inclusion, two of Stand Together’s three goals. In the past, the Arsenal team had focuses only on education/awareness, so this definitely brought stopping stigma at their school to a whole new level, by making it ‘okay to not be okay’ and ‘okay to get help.’
The Stand Together team posted the pledge and a signed poster with easy ways to remember their cause:
1) I will end stigma towards youth and adults with mental illness!
2) Caring friends make all the difference in a person’s recovery.
3) I will NOT tease youth and adults with mental illness!
4) If my friend is in danger, I will try to get them help!
5) I will NOT use mean words towards ANYONE.
Students moved though two stations, one for each goal. At the first stations, students signed the Stand Together pledge to receive a green wristband, representing Mental Health Awareness. These bracelets served as a reminder of what the students ‘signed on’ for that day. Students then proceeded to the actual Stand, where they had to show their wristband to get a ‘kuppa Kool-Ade.’ Students were also handed a slip with a mental health/crisis resource on it. These slips included information on re:SOLVE crisis center/hotline, the crisis text-line (741-741), ‘Safe Places,’ and the school resource lead, Mr. McCarthy (who is also Stand Together’s advisor!)
The student body sipped their Kool-Ade while learning how to stop stigma in their school. The group even got to do two of their events outside-talk about promoting mental health and self-care!!! We look forward to working with Arsenal again next year. Thanks for all your hard work, team! Kudos!
Stand Together students had another phenomenal year and our team couldn’t wait to celebrate with and recognize them for all of their hard work to end stigma in their schools! I had the pleasure of working with many of our high schools this year and they blew me away with their passion, commitment, and courage.
This year’s projects were innovative, creative, and incredibly impactful. We trained nine high schools, seven completed projects, and six participated in the recognition event. Here’s what the students designed and implemented at their schools this year:
The Academy Charter School: The Academy chose a different approach to decreasing stigma in their school by creating a ‘safe space’ for students who might be struggling with something. This room was staffed by faculty and had many coping techniques available, including quiet music, comfy chairs, sensory objects, and inspirational MH images. In addition, the students promoted education and self-care with the faculty by giving out cups with coffee/tea, an awareness wristband, and a bookmark with the ST anti-stigma pledge on it. In working with the faculty, they hoped to increase their knowledge and change attitudes that would hopefully filter down to the students.
Taylor Allderdice High School (PPS): The students at Allderdice created and presented a mini-presentation about mental health and stigma to the freshman Civics classes. In addition, they worked with the art department to create a dragon (their mascot) painting. Students signed flames agreeing to ‘breath fire on stigma.’ This mural will remain a permanent fixture at the school signifying their solidarity in the fight against stigma. The Stand Together team finished their year with an 1:4 assembly, in which mental health and stigma was reviewed and the students were rewarded by pie-ing four teachers in the face for their participation in the year’s activities.
Propel-Braddock Hills High School: Propel HS has been in Stand Together for all five years! Switching things up from their typical ‘Black Out Stigma’ theme, this year the Stand Together students chose ‘BLOCK Out Stigma.‘ This theme utilized larger-than-life lego blocks for their projects that addressed all three of Stand Together’s goals: 1) ‘Block’ Stigma (education/awareness); 2) ‘Build’ Relationships (social inclusion); and 3) ‘Lego’ of Fear (ask-an-adult). Students did activities within their ‘crews’ (like homeroom) and during a ‘Block Party‘ during lunch. (All those puns!) PBHHS always comes up with out-of-the-box ideas that really get the student body interested and involved in Stand Together at their school.
Science & Technology Academy: Although SciTech’s group was small, they were mighty! Students were given cups of Lemonade for Change that had mental health facts on them. The team used the lemonade as an incentive to get their peers to visit their booth and learn about mental health in a casual environment. The team also made posters that were shared around the school to remind the students of what they had learned during the activities. They mentioned they could definitely see an impactwith their students and that students were very receptive and interested in what they had to say. Sounds like a success!
Shaler Area High School: Although it was their first year in Stand Together, Shaler did a great job incorporating two goals into two projects. During lunch, the team had students ‘Take a Bite out of Stigma‘ by reading facts about mental health and substance use disorders and stigma (education/awareness) before receiving a cookie. Students also participated in a social inclusion, ‘No One is Alone.‘ Several prompts were provided on a large poster and students had color-coded post-it notes to anonymously respond to the statements if they applied to themselves or someone they know. These statements included such as: I have been personally affected by a mental illness; I have been personally affected by substance use; I’ve felt excluded or disadvantaged. Students also received a ‘sucker to stop stigma.’ This project was incredibly moving; the post-its filled the entire poster and it was powerful to see so many students being honest about their struggles, but also have the visual to see that they are never alone in what they’re going through.
West Allegheny High School: A first-year school like Shaler, West A. did fantastic projects that were presented the information in fun, free food projects that were meaningful and memorable. Students not only engaged in ‘food give-aways‘ (including cookies, HerSHEy kisses, and gum>>check out their other blog for the great slogans!), but also began and ended their project season with assemblies for the student body. The first included an overview of Stand Together and mental health and the last had students participate in a ‘Mental Health Jeopardy.’ Trainer Danyelle also shared her recovery story for the group. The team remarked that students really enjoyed the activities and are excited to continue participating in Stand Together next year.
West Mifflin Area High School: This is also WMHS’s fifth year with Stand Together. This year’s projects included an ‘I am…’ reflective mural, their annual Glow Dance so spread awareness about mental health and substance use disorders and suicide, and a Mental Health Fair, featuring a Celebrity Art Gallery, depicting and describing celebrities that are affected by MH/SUD. Students have promoted social inclusion in a Worry Monster, in which students would right down a struggle with anxiety and students could see that they are not alone ; the team also responded to these with uplifting messages of encouragement and hope. In addition, the school’s ‘Safe Haven’ program promotes relationships with adults by creating ‘safe classrooms’ and ‘safe teachers’ that are trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid and are willing and able to help students get the help they need.
Lacey and I are incredibly proud of all of our high schools and we look forward to working with you again next year! If you want to see more of these amazing projects, check out our YouTube Playlist, the individual school blogs, and the full-length Stand Together Student Project Reel 2018 below:
Today is the fifth-annual World Bipolar Day, an annual global campaign to raise awareness about bipolar disorder and eliminate stigma. It is celebrated every year on the birthday of artist Vincent van Gogh, a famous Dutch painter diagnoses with bipolar disorder that died by suicide after struggling with psychosis. Bipolar disorder affects around 3.4 million children and adolescents. Although mood swings are typical in adolescence, when these start to affect the individual’s life on a daily basis, this can be cause for concern. Famous recording artist Demi Lovato has also become a strong public advocate as well.
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by period of mania (hyperactivity, impulsivity, reckless behavior, high energy, lack of sleep) and depression (little activity, anxiety, potentially suicidal thoughts/self-harm, low energy, and often increased sleep). Some forms of bipolar disorder also include psychotic episodes, when people can experience hallucinations, delusions, and odd thoughts/ideas. As you can imagine, this is a complex and difficult disorder for youth to experience, especially if they’re experiencing these symptoms for the first time on adolescence. (Click the roller coaster below!)
There is a lot of stigma associated with bipolar disorder. How many times have you heard the word bipolar used as an adjective to describe someone that changes their mind often or when the weather is unpredictable? Using these words can be offensive to individuals that are affected by BD (bipolar disorder). Although known for their rapid changes in mood, mania and depression typically change only several times a year or at most a month. These transitions can be exceptionally difficult and confusing.
The good news is-like most mental health disorders-bipolar disorder can be treated and recovery is possible. For most individuals, a combination of medication and therapy is the most effective. Medicines may include things like mood stabilizers to help even things out and anti-depressants to help with the lows that can be more difficult. The medication isn’t a ‘magic pill;’ the individual may still experience symptoms, but it helps them become more manageable. Therapy includes cognitive behavioral interventions that may help manage the individual’s thoughts, moods, and behaviors. These types of therapies help the individuals cope with the changes and intense feelings that they experience and help them to challenge their thoughts, which, in turn, impacts their moods and behaviors.
I myself have been diagnoses with bipolar disorder. As a teenager and young adult, I was afraid to seek help; I was scared that everyone was going to think I was ‘crazy‘ and getting help was a sign of weakness in my family. A lot of that was from stigma. Even though I was clearly suffering, I was unable to get the help I needed until much later in life. Now, despite these challenges, I am a successful adult. I have a job I love, I’m getting married in December, and I frequently share my story to help decrease the stigma associated with this and other mental health conditions. Sometimes I still struggle, but I have a great support system, I can always reach out to my therapist and psychiatrist, and have the tools and coping skills I need to overcome the bumps that come along the way. There may be potholes, but I can dig myself out.