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!
Lions and tigers and bears…Oh my! (Wizard of Oz) Celebrities, cookies and scrunchies…Oh my! (Oakland Catholic) Those animals are definitely something to be afraid of, but the students at Oakland Catholic High School weren’t afraid to tackle stigma in their school. Although this was their first year, the team created some great projects that will be remembered fondly for years to come.
The team kicked off the year with visual representations to spread awareness. Team members decorated the staircases of their two building with different colored tape to represent the one in four youth that are affected by a mental and/or substance use disorders in a given year. Posters of prominent celebrities with these conditions were on the walls of the stairwells to spread awareness about the prevalence of these disorders and how they can affect anyone. Since it was their first year and first project, many of their peers were curious about the decorations and approached ST members to discuss the visuals. Many of the adults also commented that they did not know that these people lived with these disorders. This started the conversations that would be had over the course of the school year.
Students continued their discussion on the topic by using an activity to Crumble Away Stigma. Student participants spun a carnival wheel to select a questions about a mental health or substance use disorder. Students got to spin the wheel until they answered a question correctly. Some students had to get some help, but that just emphasises how much we need each other and that we’re not alone in our struggles. Participants were awarded with an infamous Ms. Judy cookie. Folks, these are homemade by one of the cafeteria workers and I can tell you from first-hand experience that they are amazing. No wonder this project was such a hit! Students were also encouraged to sign the Stop the Stigma pledge by means of a card on the cookie bag. The team continued promoting the 1:4 ratio with the cookies themselves: for every three Sprinkle with Kindness sugar cookies, there was a chocolate Chip Away Stigma cookie. Students were more than happy to participate with such a tasty treat at stake! Many of the school’s faculty and staff, including their priest and assistant principal joined in on the fun. I was so glad I could be there for this event!
The group’s last activity for the year combined a video presentation with an incentive give-away. 90s trends are making a comeback and scrunchies are a BIG deal at OC. In the video, students explained the idea behind the scrunchies, but, more importantly, the clip featured students and staff sharing their experiences with mental health and the ST program. ST students and members of the student body shared how the projects have affected them. One brave teacher shared that his own sister died by suicide. This video also gave students a lot of hope and helped others realize that they are not alone in their struggles. Then, students were encouraged to reach out to a ST member and discuss something they learned from the video to receive a scrunchie. As they said, ‘Together, we can scrunch away stigma.’ Students were proud to don their scrunchies as a symbol of solidarity against stigma.
OC is well on their way to ending stigma at their school. 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.
We love hearing about the impact our students teams are making in their schools. When we Stand Together to ‘crumble’ and ‘scrunch’ away stigma, more youth can get the help they need without fear of STIGMA (stereotypes, teasing, inappropriate language, ignorance, myths, and negative attitudes) and discrimination. Outstand job, Oakland Catholic! We can’t wait to see what you come up with next year!
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.
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.
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!
Propel: Braddock Hills High School is our other school that has been in the program all six years and each year they continue to surprise us with their creativity, passion, and commitment. They are mixing it up this year though: none of the students have participated in this group before. Several of the students participated at the middle school level, but it’s a whole new crop of students. New group = new ideas. It’s gonna be another great year!
Most of the students in the group didn’t know each other before the training. We find that oftentimes, these teams form the closest bonds. As groups engage with each other in team-building (such as Common Ground) and intimate activities (such as Cross the Line), they learn that they have more in common than separates them and that no one is alone. Although we all come from very different backgrounds and have varied experiences, we can all relate to each other and play a part in ending stigma.
This year, we were incredibly impressed by the ideas the students came up. Students viewed past projects and took them a step further, amping them up and pushing them to new heights (literally: a balloon release!). I was particularly fond of the ‘Stigma is Sour; Support is Sweet’ idea; every student that engages in the activity gets a slushie, but one in four get a pack of Sour Patch Kids (my favorite candy). Needless to say, I’ll be out to visit that day. The group had some really catchy slogans, too, including: ‘Light the Way’ (paper lanterns with facts) and ‘Letting Go of Insecurities.’ The group also plans to do a mask activity and have 1:4 students put a large X on their face to symbolize the 1:4 youth affected by mental and/or substance use disorders. This is even more meaningful as the definition of stigma means a mark of disgrace. Students hope this moving visual will create a huge impact on the culture of their school by increasing awareness and social inclusion. to break down stigma and advocate for asking for help.
We’re excited to see Propel BHHS projects in action later this year and are certain they’re ‘lighting the way’ to a future without stigma. Here’s to year six-let’s do this!
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.
Brentwood High School is no stranger to the Stand Together program and we were thrilled to hear that they would be teaming up with their middle school students this year to create one large Stand Together team!
Since we had middle and high school working together, we did three days of training. The first day was only middle schoolers, who had never been in Stand Together before. I cannot even begin to tell you how impressed I was with these students! Not only were they extremely knowledgeable, they were also emotionally mature. They all asked questions that were thoughtful and weren’t afraid to voice their opinions, even if they differed from others. It was such a pleasure getting to know each student and seeing how excited they were for the upcoming year (especially working with the high schoolers).
The second day of training was just with the high school students. Many of them had been in Stand Together previously, so it was nice to see returning students. Much of the discussion was very personal and heartfelt, which showed me how much the students trusted each other. By the end of the day, I felt like I had learned so much from this group.
The third day of training was a combined project planning with the middle and high school students. This was my first time doing a combined training, so I was a bit nervous as I did not know what to expect. We began to brainstorm ideas that were applicable to both middle and high schoolers. The students decided on doing a 1-in-4 toolkit and a Lemonade for Change toolkit. Once they had their main ideas and goals laid out, we broke the entire group (middle and high school), into two groups. Those two groups then worked on their specific toolkit. At the end of the day, we all came back together and shared our ideas to receive feedback. Each group had such different projects that all related to the Stand Together goals!
I want to thank you, Brentwood, for allowing me to come in and work with both the middle and high school students. You were all so passionate and really cared about this project. I can’t wait to see your creative ideas put into action!