Every year this is always the most difficult blog to write because I don’t know where to begin to describe the talent and passion of the youth that I am so blessed to work with. I usually only try to speak for myself, but I can say with 100% certainty that Montaja, Mike, all our TAs, and I are so incredibly proud of each and every one of you. This week’s Recognition Event was an absolutely magical experience and if you missed it, we can’t wait to share it with you!
A little bit about Stand Together/this year: ST has been in schools for the past six years, expanding each year to reach more and more middle and high school youth through student-driven anti-stigma projects that are increasing education and awareness, promoting social inclusion, and encouraging help-seeking behaviors. This year, ST trained 18 schools, 16 of which completed projects, and 14 were able to participate in this year’s event. The Heinz History Center was packed with youth and adult advocates that are enthusiastic about ending the stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders. This was our biggest year yet, with around 300 in attendance!
Our schools designed and implemented so many unique and innovative projects for their peers. The tried & true food and beverage stands are always a hit. Mental health fairs and presentations are making a come-back. Several schools decorated 1 in 4 stairs and their stairwells, while others created murals and plastered pledges on the walls. Some of our most creative projects for this year included Propel BHHS’s ‘Shine a Light on Mental Health’ paper lantern activity, WMHS’s ‘Toilet Talk’ booth, Shaler HS’s ‘Truth Tree,’ and SVMS’s ‘March Madness’ basketball tournament. Each year the students’ projects amaze us more and more, but the most important piece is the impact the students share about the changes that are taking place in their school culture. Take a look:
CAPA’s The Real Tea
Montour’s ‘Be Sweet, Not Sour’
South Park team
Propel S-Know Cones
SciTech students ‘hearing voices’ at Shaler HS
W. Allegheny friends
Student presenters shared that students are more comfortable talking about mental health and are more apt to reach out to ask questions and seek help. Students are using less stigmatizing language and aware and respectful of the invisible challenges they may be facing. The school culture is more accepting, encouraging, and supportive. Teachers and staff are forming relationships with students and challenging their own assumptions and stigmas. Lives are being changed daily thanks to the work of these students and advisors and we couldn’t be more proud.
Stigma is not gone, but little by little, our teams
N. Allegheny students at the photo booth
are ‘chipping’ (cookie joke) away to break stigma and create better mental health environments in schools and even their communities. Events like these help the students see that they are part of something bigger than the projects in their individual schools-they can and are making a difference. As our keynote speaker remarked, ‘You may never know the ripple effects of your work,’ but we can already see the changes that are taking place-and we look forward to an even ‘brighter’ (lantern pun) future for mental and substance use disorders.
We can’t thank you enough for all the time, talent, and commitment you’ve contributed to this cause. We’re lucky enough to be able to lay the foundation-and then you run with your ideas and plans and turn this into something marvelous and meaningful. To our all teams, congratulations on another amazing year stopping stigma, one project at a time.
South Park High School used holidays to their advantage their first year in Stand Together, planning events around less busy times in their school that could better reach students with clear minds and change their hearts. This years’ events occured around the winter holiday season, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day. Last week, with some ‘luck of the Irish,’ the ST team raised awareness about mental and substance use disorders with their peers.
‘Lucky to Break Stigma’ flyers hung in the hall of the school to display information in classrooms and around the school to prepare their classmates for the event. With the help of teachers in the study halls, announcements were made to encourage students to head over to the table and ‘test their luck’ on the trivia questions. Decked out in green, Stand Together advocates hosted a food table during student study halls. Students felt ‘lucky’ when they tested their chance at answering trivia questions. For the correct answers, each winner got to pick-up a green cookie and some ST swag. Not only did students walk away with free treats, but also with a better knowledge about stigmatizing behavior and how to stop it. The swag helps, too, as a constant reminder to promote ST goals in their school (education/awareness, inclusion, reaching out for help).
ST students were excited to use St. Patrick’s day as a theme for green treats and prizes, which helped to tie the color to mental health awareness (green). For an extra boost of positivity, a team member also created a daily message on their school app to push the messages of S.H.E. and it’s okay to not be okay.
The team also held a ‘silent bingo’ activity before the holidays to introduce students to mental and substance use disorders. In addition, they had a ‘Mental Health is a HOT topic’ hot chocolate stand for Valentine’s day. The group is excited to attend the Recognition Event and share their projects with the other teams. All of the students are ready to come back next year.
Check out this video of Keri-Anne sharing their projects:
Great job on your Food 4 Thought events and we’re excited to see what’s in store for next year!
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!
Montour High School didn’t let the polar vortex freeze away their enthusiasm! Monday morning, the halls and cafeteria were filled with the buttery smells of a classic snack, popcorn! The Stand Together team and their advisor, Ms. Hester, wore black Montour t-shirts with #standtogether written in green letters on the backs of the shirts to represent mental health awareness. For three separate lunch periods, the team held a ‘Pop’ Stigma Stand and bravely engaged their fellow students in conversations about mental health, substance use disorders, and stigma.
Some of the team members helped to keep the table running smoothly, others helped bag popcorn, and some asked their peers myths and facts and asked them to sign the anti-stigma pledge. One Stand Together member explained the difference between mental illness and intellectual disorders to a group of her fellow peers at a lunch table. Other members had conversations to debunk myths and learn facts about mental illness. Students that participated in the activity were rewarded with a bag of freshly popped popcorn-all in an effort to ‘pop’ stigma. Students and staff were seen gathering at the table signing pledges, listening to their peers explaining the information, and enjoying their treats. The turnout was great! Stand Together members also discussed how to display the student pledges in their school as a reminder of the event and their commitment to change.
It was clear that Montour is serious about ‘popping’ stigma at their school. They are looking forward to bigger and better ways to do so in the next few months and in the coming years. Congratulations to Montour on your first Stand Together event. We can’t wait to see what’s next!
The Creative and Performing Arts Academy (PPS) is one of our 10 (!) new schools for this year. And they’re serious about stopping stigma. So serious, that they requested to take a ‘serious’ photo of their group at the end! At any rate, mental health and stigma are serious issues-all the more reason we need to start talking about them and stop the stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders.
This year we added a more extensive section on substance use disorders. Students have had a lot of questions and substance use disorders often occur with and/or because of mental health conditions. In addition, as the ‘opioid epidemic’ comes to the forefront and more students are being affected by the use of heroin and ‘pain killers,’ it was important that our training provided much needed information to dispel myths, share information, and help youth address the specific stigmas attached to these disorders. Stigma is so pervasive and perpetuates the shame that comes from receiving treatment for both mental and substance use disorders, but these numbers continue to rise, especially youth using electronic vapor products and marijuana. It’s important to be knowledgeable and aware of not only these disorders, but also the resources available and how to help someone that may be struggling with a mental and/or substance use disorder.
Although one wouldn’t think it, the wrap-up on the first day is an important piece of the training workshops. After hearing from one of our team members (TA Montaja-she majored in Musical Theater!), Cross the Line, and what usually ends up being a very vulnerable, intimate, intense discussion, students take a break and come back to one of our last activities: Motivational Echoing. It might sounds like a simple activity, students come back together to solidify and personalize the truths we’ve discussed through the day:
Mental & substance use disorders are not my fault.
I am not alone.
I am loved.
It’s okay to not be okay.
It’s okay to get help.
I can help others get help.
We’re in this together.
Students leave the day feeling heard, valued, inspired, and equipped with the tools and experiences they need to influence their peers and design and implement projects to create change in their school cultures. The knowledge and awareness, feelings of social inclusion, and relationships with advisors/supporting staff pour out onto their peers and faculty. Change happens by confronting myths, changing attitudes, and promoting help-seeking and socially inclusive behaviors. The students at CAPA were no exception. They were exceptionally passionate and motivated to attack stigma head-on in fun, creative, and innovative activities.
By the end of the second day, the students at CAPA had come up with FOUR solid projects, including Stigma Stopping Stallions (S3) educational presentations, The Real Tea stand to discuss myths and facts, and a Living Wall, a version of a ‘truth booth’ in which students can visualize the impact mental and substance use disorders have on their peers, staff/faculty, families, and the community. The team will also hold an art gallery for students to create and submit original works inspired by mental health experiences. They will be displayed for the school and public. CAPA’s team is well on their way to using their ‘creative’ talents to make meaningful changes in their school!
We look forward to seeing CAPA’s projects in action and watching the students make a difference in the lives of those around them as they stand together against stigma.
Another first year school, North Allegheny High School was incredibly impressive. Right off the bat, the students were already aware of many of the myths and were prepared to counter them with facts as early as the first activity. It was such a privilege working with such a passionate and aware group. Most of the team is also members of the school’s S.A.D.D. group. Even though they had some bonds and connections (and a decent knowledge of mental health), there were still plenty of new people to meet and new information to learn and share.
Although the students were very quiet at first, with some encouragement they quickly opened up. Everyone was willing and excited to participate in the trainings. One of our larger groups (30 members), it can be intimidating, especially for more reserved students. The most memorable moment for me was the discussion after Cross the Line. There were so many different perspectives and each student had a unique story to share. The group was vulnerable with each other and left the day feeling empowered to challenge others’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors to decrease stigma in their school.
The team couldn’t wait to start planning their projects. As a large school with many staircases, the students decided to use them to their advantage to kick-off the year by grabbing the students’ attention. Stand Together will be decorating each fourth step with green tape to provide a visual representation of the ratio of individuals that are affected by a mental and/or substance use disorder (1:4). The students plan to follow this activity with a video of both students and faculty sharing their own personal experiences with mental health, whether their own or someone they know. This will also serve as a transition to a form of Truth Booth the students will facilitate later in the year. The team also has a few other small activities throughout the year, so they’re definitely going to be busy!
A special shout-out goes to Mr. Longo, one of their advisors. He spent almost a year trying to get Stand Together into N.A. and it’s definitely paid off. The group is great, the advisors are invested, and leadership is abound. We can’t wait to see their projects in action this Spring!
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!
This is West Allegheny’s second year in Stand Together and they return with even more excitement and creativity. Although last year was their first year in the program, they went above and beyond with three unique food give-aways and two assemblies that really made an impact in their school. This year, we expect nothing less-and even more!
The students at West Allegheny are not only very knowledgeable about mental health and have an incredible passion for their work, but they are also very open about their own challenges. Although this is not something that is entirely unique in Stand Together teams, WA students are incredibly vocal and vulnerable both inside and outside of the group and this has a tremendous impact on their peers, as well as the students themselves.
This year we added some additional information about substance use. The students had many questions and I even had to get back to some of them! The students were very thoughtful and empathetic when considering their responses and reactions to the role-play scenarios and loved the WHAPP game. It got pretty heated throughout several of the activities, including the fan-favorite, Ships & Sailors, and there was even a friendly spat between brothers!
The students returned this year with a stronger sense of the school needs and how they wanted to change the school culture. Although the value of education is still there, this year students really wanted to increase the awareness of the staff and challenge them in their relationships with students. One of the goals of Stand Together is to encourage students to reach out to an adult they trust when they are worried about themselves or others and relationships with staff and teachers are critical to facilitating this process. Students plan to use professional development time to provide some education and awareness to staff, but also promote social inclusion and help-seeking behaviors by connecting with the members of the group. In addition, the group is planning a Color Run in the spring to engage their entire school as well as the community in their efforts to end stigma.
It’s going to be another big year for West Allegheny. Although the idea of completing projects of this caliber can be daunting, we have no doubts the students will rise to the challenge and defy all expectations. This group is full of strong leaders, passionate voices, and big hearts. We can’t wait to see your projects in action!
Allderdice High School (PPS) has returned for their second year to Stand Together-and a devotion to finish one of their projects from last year, a dragon mural to ‘burn stigma.’ In addition, they’re hoping to do a couple other projects to reach their peers in a variety of ways.
The students at Allderdice tend to be one of our most diverse groups and it definitely brings a lot of different experiences to the table. There were also two teachers that teamed up with the group this year and are excited to join the group. They also had many returning members and they came back with the same passion and tenacity they finished the year with in 2018. Both the students and advisors were very moved by Cross the Line, breaking down the barriers and stereotypes they had for each other. Several students shared their own struggles with mental illness.
The best part of the day for me was when the students responded to the What Would You Do? scenarios. They had very thoughtful answers and had the skills to assess situations for WHAPP (withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, poor self care, and personality change) and implement SHE (support, hope, encouragement) in their responses. Student relationships and the youth voice are crucial to the success of Stand Together and over the years, groups refine their skills to provide empathy, information, and resources to their peers.
The group definitely bonded over the two days of training and are looking forward to finishing planning their projects and implementing them in the spring. Keep an eye out for that dragon!
South Park High School just completed their first year of Stand Together training! Day 1 consisted of a lot of educational pieces, but the students breezed through the material because they were already so knowledgeable about mental illness, substance abuse, and stigma! They had great responses and conversations throughout day 1 about how mental illness and substance abuse affects everyone in different ways.
Day 2 consisted of project planning! Before planning, the students reviewed the material from day 1 of training through a game of Jeopardy. I was so impressed with how much information the students had retained from the following week. Later in the day the students did an activity called Common Ground. It was hilarious to see the students rushing around to try and find an empty seat and bonus – no one broke an arm! Yay!
Once we began project planning, the students got so hyped up! They started spit balling ideas that usually a first-year school wouldn’t come up with! My team and I were extremely impressed. The students decided on introducing themselves to their student body through a donut stand during study hall periods. The slogans that the students came up with were hysterical and so clever! I cannot wait to see their projects throughout the year. South Park High School blew me away!
Good luck this year students. Your passion and creativity will make an enormous impact on your student body. Thank you for supporting the fight against stigma towards mental illness and substance abuse!!!