Middle school can be a challenging time, especially if someone has a mental and/or substance use disorder. Shaler Area Middle School wants to decrease the stigma associated with these conditions by increasing education and awareness and promoting social inclusion. This is the group’s second year in the program and it was great to see some familiar faces as well as meet new additions to the team.
Even though the students had already attended their first classes for the day, it took a little effort to wake them up. To get them moving, we kick-off with an exercise that not only gets the blood flowing, but teaches them something along the way. Students are directed to jump up and down 10 times while whispering their favorite colors. Obviously, participants at opposite ends of the room wouldn’t be able to hear each other, but just because the other student couldn’t hear it, didn’t mean that person didn’t have a favorite color. This is a lot like mental and substance use disorders-just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Students learned not only about the definitions and prevalence of these conditions, but, more importantly, how they affect individuals outside the symptoms of the disorder. Students learned about the impact of stigma on their peers-and what they can do to help. W.H.A.P.P. was introduced to help students recognize the signs that someone may be struggling and students used S.H.E. in scenarios to think about how they would help a peer that was struggling by providing support, hope, and encouragement and reaching out to an adult they trust when they are worried about themselves or someone else. Students also got to know each other better and realized they had more in common than they thought, creating a sense of unity in the group and reaffirming their commitment to the program and each other.
After completing their first day of training, students were ready to start using the education and experiences to design projects to decrease stigma in their school. Students were excited to included food (because who doesn’t like getting free food) again this year and also expand on myths and facts. The group also wants their peers to be more aware that a lot of people struggle with these disorders and #itsokaytonotbeokay. They want to create a culture of acceptance and support where their peers feel welcome and know that they matter. The support of family and friends is so important in recovery and for wellness and the more we engage others, the more we create relationships that foster connection and trust. When these qualities exist, people feel comfortable talking about their experiences, sharing their feelings, and reaching out for help. And that’s what Stand Together is all about.
By the end of the day, I was really impressed with the groups innovative ideas and slogans and lofty goals for the year. Their passion will only help propel them forward as they continue planning and implement their projects. Hopscotch, paper chains, popsicles, and Kahoot! will all be used to entice their peers and further their anti-stigma message in a fun, but purposeful way. Personally I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so that we can ‘Freeze Away Stigma,’ but that’s just me…
These group is sure to change minds, hearts, and even lives by challenging myths and bringing their peers together to end stigma. We look forward to another year at SAMS and can’t wait to see your projects grow!
Written by Danyelle, coordinator