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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
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)
The common phrase we hear around the New Year is: New Year, New Year. I want to tell you that you are already enough! But there’s always things we can work on to better ourselves and achieve our goals. We don’t want a ‘new you;’ our goal is to give you some tips and tricks to incorporate into 2018. No matter if you set resolutions or just see it as another day, it’s important to remember that the small things matter, you’re not alone, and we’re in this together.
The most important of them all:
You DESERVE to be HAPPY!!!
Should I say it again? YOU! Yes, you! Many of us struggle with self-confidence, high standards/expectations, and so much pressure. Sometimes it’s hard to think that there’s more to life than the hustle and bustle of everyday or the chasing the ideas of perfection. You are unique. There is no one else exactly like you in the world. You are human and you deserve love and happiness. And that starts with you. You’ve got this!
You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
– A. A. Milne
2. Treat yo-self!
I know we preach and preach about self-care, but is it so incredibly important. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so the saying goes. As members of Stand Together, we ask you to be there and practice SHE: support, hold hope, and encourage each other. You can’t do that if you’re not well. Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise, and do things you enjoy. Be kind to yourself. Take care of your mind, body, and spirit (aka holistic wellness). Take care of yourself and you’ll be able to share yourself with others.
3. Surround yourself with positive people.
We all need SHE in our lives. Friends and close family members are some of the most important tools for resiliency (the ability to bounce back after difficult experiences). You’re never alone and we’re in this together. Don’t be afraid to share your joy, your fears, your struggles with someone else. We have more in common than we do different.
This comic is me to a ‘T.’ So often I focus on the few negative things than all the great things. It’s so hard to do! We have to rewire our brains to make this happen-but it’s well worth it. At the same time, we need to appreciate the little things in life: a text from a friend, a sunrise/sunset, (for me) a nice cup of tea…the list goes on. Gratitude helps us stay centered and have a more positive outlook. Have you given thanks today?
Last, but not least…
5. This is YOUR year.
You have the power to change things you do not like. You have the ability to set boundaries to protect your mental health. You have the chance to advocate for yourself and others. You can and will make a difference. We believe in you. Live in expectation; the best is yet to come. Happy, Healthy New Year!
Written by Danyelle, Project Coordinator
Hey ya’ll! My name is Lacey Agresta and I am a project trainer with Stand Together. The end goal of my job is to break down stigma and educate our youth about mental health and substance use. I achieve this by going into classrooms all around Allegheny County and facilitate workshops.
In 2014, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology from Florida State University. I started my career as a case manager for children and families who were involved in the court system. After that I was employed by an elementary school, focusing on absenteeism within the student body. I realized then that my passion was working with youth. When I found my current position as a Recovery Specialist, I knew my move to Pittsburgh was for a reason; to spread the word about mental illness and hopefully help one person who is facing challenges in their own life.
What makes me such an expert on this subject? Well, I have suffered with mental health disorders my entire life. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety, and ADHD in my early teens. When I’m not focusing on my recovery, I am extremely anti-social, tired, agitated, nervous, unable to focus on one task, not sleeping, and many more symptoms that caused impairment in my everyday life. These symptoms led me to abuse drugs to numb my pain, thus causing me to eventually become addicted. My recovery came slowly, but I didn’t give up on it like I had done so many times before throughout my youth. I surrounded myself with people that loved me and supported me throughout my journey. My parents helped as best as they could, but they weren’t experts on recovery and they didn’t understand the kind of support I needed; they also had mental health issues of their own. Luckily, I had other adults that were professionals in this field that stood by my side and never gave up on me, even when I would mess up. I listened to them and did what they told me to do, even if I didn’t want to. I knew that I could not do this on my own and I had to put my ego aside. Today I live a beautiful life and I never take one day for granted. If I could get through it and come out of the other side, anyone can.
I’m originally from Bradenton, Florida and just recently moved to Pittsburgh in April 2017. I currently live in Dormont with my boyfriend and our fur-babies, Armani and Biggie. Most of my time is spent outside exercising, exploring the town, or cuddling up on the couch with my pup!
“You were never created to live depressed, guilty, condemned, ashamed, or unworthy. You were created to be victorious.”