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.
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.
West Mifflin Area High School is the other school in our program that has participated all six years of its existence. Each year, we’re amazed by the creativity and quality of their projects. It’s hard to believe it just keeps getting better and better.
Before they even got started with their Stand Together trainings, they were already planning an event for ‘Hello Week,’ a school-wide initiative to increase social inclusion school-wide at the beginning of the year. Students would pull a question from a fishbowl and answer with a student that didn’t know. Then the students would take a ‘selfie with a stranger’ to commemorate the event, breaking down barriers to connection and decreasing isolation by promoting new relationships. This activity allowed administration and staff to interact with the students as well to encourage youth to reach out to an adult.
To kick-off the year a little bit more specific to Stand Together, the team held an assembly to encourage students to Speak Up! and Reach Out! Members introduced themselves and talked about mental health conditions, stigma, and the importance of getting help. Several individuals acted out a skit entitled ‘A Day in the Life of a Teen with a Mental Health Condition,’ demonstrating some struggles students and staff might encounter during a typical school-day. Students also shared resources and showed a student-created a video describing warning signs for mental health conditions, how to help, and positive affirmations for those that may be struggling. (To watch the video, click the image of the students with the signs above.)
Later in the year, students also held activities during lunch to reach out to their peers in a more casual setting. One of these activities was a matching game. In February, student participants would ‘race’ to match the diagnoses to the correct definitions. All players received a prize and winners were entered into a raffle for a gift card. Talking about mental health isn’t taboo-and it can be fun, too!
One of my favorite activities of the year was their twist on the ‘Truth Booth.’ Students designed a make-shift bathroom stall-complete with a toilet!-to change an often negative space (bullying, graffiti, crying, aggression, etc.) into a more positive one (‘safe space,’ if you will). The walls of the stall were filled with negative statements and attitudes, however, students were encouraged to cover-up these phrases with more positive messages and ‘flush away negativity.’ Students also responded to prompts on slips of paper. These included such questions as, ‘How can we make our school a more positive place for everyone?’ and ‘What negative word affected you most? Why?’ Although a funny concept, this project was incredibly impactful to the Stand Together team, the students that participated, and the school staff/faculty.
The team also completed the suicide prevention QPR training on March 15 to increase their skills in reaching out to peers that may be having suicidal thoughts and ideations. (Click the image below to learn more!) Other activities included a booth at their community night, Kahoot trivia game, mental health bracelet with representatives from NAMI, and a self-worth event, during which students selected a bracelet with a positive message they wanted to identify with, took a Polaroid with the bracelet, and wrote on it why they chose that bracelet.
As you can see, WMAHS had a full, meaningful year! The commitment of the students and excellence of their projects, led by advisor Ms. Rowe, are a great reminder of the impact youth advocates can make to decrease stigma in their schools and even communities. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next year!
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.
Shaler Area High School is returning for its second year with Stand Together. We were impressed with the impact of their ‘truth booth’ project last year and the vulnerability of the entire student body. This year, of course, the ‘truth booth’ is being resurrected, along with a few other activities for another great year.
Many of the students returned from last year, but there were plenty of new faces that joined the team this year. One of my favorite moments was when two students connected over a discussion about therapy; one student was asking questions about partial hospitalization (that means when someone can go to school or work, but still has extensive amounts of group and individual therapy, usually 3 or so hour/day) and another student willingly shared some of her own experiences. This was incredibly powerful. Stand Together sees the incredible value in youth that have experienced these difficulties, whether themselves or someone they know, and their great opportunity to enact change from a lived-perspective. Sharing our stories helps others know it’s okay to not to be okay, you’re not alone, and help is out there; it can get better. There is hope; there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
We also had a lot of fun. The ‘fan favorite’ Ships & Sailors resulted in hilarious outbursts as students dramaticized movements and reactions. We had a lot of theater participants in the room and it clearly showed! The students also learned how to work together. Like many of our groups, the Stand Together team at SAHS was a diverse team of students. But after the first day, they were well on their way to forming a unified front against stigma.
One of my favorite parts of the day is the time we spend in circles. I know it sounds cliche, but this ‘circle time’ is where a lot of the ‘magic happens.’ Students find out that they have more in common than separates them, they get to know each other, and more importantly, they get to share pieces about themselves and how they’re going to use their passion and the information they learned to help others. This is always a moving time for me as students share things they learned, what they’re going to change, and what they’re going to contribute to the project. By the end of the second day, these students were ready to go.
These students also came up with some amazing ideas during their project piece. Using some of the activities we facilitate in trainings, as well as some creative new ideas, the students planned some amazing events for this year. We’re looking forward to this year’s visual, student activity fair, and newest version of the ‘truth booth.’ Thank you, SAHS, for not being afraid to #talkaboutit and #standtogether against stigma.