Posts Tagged challenges


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My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Brandy)

My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Brandy)

This blog is part of a series from our Stand Together team to bring to light our experiences with depression and anxiety. May is Mental Health Month and it’s as good of a time as ever to end stigma by talking about our experiences and spreading awareness. You are not alone-we’re with you. We’re in this together.

Trigger warning: suicide & self-harm

Unsurprising to most (looking back, myself included), my symptoms of depression and anxiety began when I was a child. What I do find interesting is that my symptoms changed over time. In the very beginning, it was incredibly difficult for me to open up and meet new people, I kept my emotions ‘bottled-up inside,’ and I had issues not being comfortable with my body. In high school, I started to struggle with self-harm. I had yet to receive any kind of help for my mental health issues growing up, so these problematic symptoms became even more challenging when I went to college.

At university, my generally social anxiety turned into general anxiety (anxiety about any and everything). Along with my body image issues, I also developed a general feeling of inadequacy in my life, whether it be school, social life, finances, or anything else. Neither my good grades nor the praises that were given to me from loved ones consoled me. I still hadn’t received any treatment or developed any healthy coping skills; as it sounds, at that point it was a constant downhill spiral. It was at this time (in college), that I also started having suicidal thoughts and I ended up admitting myself to a psychiatric hospital.

Now I am finally on the proper medication (it took a few tries to find the right one for me) and I am constantly developing and using coping skills to diminish my feelings of loneliness and increase my feelings of self-worth. These strategies can look like anything from making origami to cleaning. Yes, I love cleaning! Haha. I’ve also cut out any ‘toxic’ individuals that were in my life that weren’t good for my mental wellness and I’m trying to reach out to my friends more, not only when I’m in need, but just to have meaningful human interaction that I crave.

I still don’t have too many friends (I only have a small handful of wonderful humans), but I don’t feel lonely or inadequate. My only thought now is,

I’m shocked I don’t have more friends because I’m pretty awesome!

Haha 🙂

To be able to have that mindset is something ‘younger Brandy’ would have never imagined and that, too, is pretty awesome. I also love making people smile. I love my cats. I’m a cherished friend a fierce advocate. I thrive off anime, Spongebob Squarepants, video games, and-much to the dismay of my dentist-pastries!

My big floof, Oliver

The things I like don’t define who I am and neither does my depression, but all these things make up who I am as a person. They are the little parts that interact with each other that make me who I am and shape how I view and navigate life. These pieces enable me to show other people-and myself!-that I have plenty to offer. I will fiercely and unapologetically be myself to achieve wonderful things in life. Because, like I said, I’m awesome! 🙂

Written by Brandy, *new* trainer

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My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Montaja)

My Experience: Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week (Montaja)

This blog is part of a series from our Stand Together team to bring to light our experiences with depression and anxiety. May is Mental Health Month and it’s as good of a time as ever to end stigma by talking about our experiences and spreading awareness. You are not alone-we’re with you. We’re in this together.

I first learned about depression when I met it face-to-face. Growing up, I struggled with thoughts about death and my rocky childhood experiences did not help with my mental wellness. The change in pace, constant moving, and inconsistency made me turn inward, keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself.

This trend followed me throughout school and stopped me from seeking the help I so desparately needed. I became a master at masking my feelings and struggles; with theater performance my college degree, it wasn’t hard to do.

Knowing all along something wasn’t right, but being afraid to actually ask about it, really kept me suffering in silence for a long time. Growing up, I didn’t have access to conversations about taking care of my mental health, let alone know who to reach out to for that kind of support. After finishing college and not having anything left to keep me running and distracted, I came crashing down into emotional distress.

Life started to make sense when I found out that I had been living with major depression disorder. I did have to work out my own stigma, accepting my diagnosis and accepting the fact that I needed help-and it was okay to do so. Talk therapy has helped me process and manage my recurring thoughts, fears, and shame. When I don’t feel okay, I allow myself to feel those feelings and have a cry if I need to. I also turn to humor, art, cooking, and writing to help me cope and thrive.

a Mixed Media Collage I created

My experience with depression and anxiety has helped me become who I am and advocate for myself and other. The best accomplishment I have made is becoming emotionally aware. I am still building my community of support and true self-care. I get closer and closer to arriving at joy each day. I credit this to the hard work I’ve done in therapy and my continued practice of mindfulness.

Talk about your feelings to an adult you trust and remember that your feelings don’t dictate your future-you do. A diagnosis is just a diagnosis; you are a ‘person-first.’ You can go on to do amazing things despite having a challenging condition. Take care of yourself and enjoy the small things (like tacos and koalas!). It can get better.

Written by Montaja, trainer

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Gateway Gators Gear-up to End Stigma

Gateway Gators Gear-up to End Stigma

Stand Together welcomes Gateway Middle School to our line-up of participants this year. Our new team is just as excited as we are to start removing the stigma around mental health in their school and community.

Two Thursdays in January, students strolled into their LGI space to partake in our training workshops. Some students knew each other, but mostly the group was full of students who built new connections with their classmates. As the day went on, the team-building activities and games removed any uncertain and shy feelings they may have had in the morning and the group was really coming together.

This group held nothing back when asking questions about the myths and facts and mental health diagnoses. Most, if not all, of the students felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings about the stigma surrounding mental health and discussed the myths most often heard in their school environment. As the training went on, it was clear the students retained the important information given to them as they blazed through the review games with flying colors. During the end of the first workshop, we also had the opportunity to talk about some of the challenges youth face when they feel alone or someone may be struggling. What an impressive first day!

A bond was already being built with this group the first day, which only helped them bounce right back into action for our second workshop. They returned ever more excited to start planning their projects. Day 2 had so many ideas flowing that it was hard to keep up with all the possibilities! The team broke into small groups as they selected a toolkit idea to really focus on. These three groups shared with the large group their plans for an anti-stigma event. A 1:4 theme (the ratio of youth affected by mental and substance use disorders) was laced through each project idea, reflecting Stand Together’s goal of education and awareness. Cookies & milk, slushies, and a variety of snacks made the list of ideas as well.Catchy slogans, like ‘Stigma belongs in the dirt!’ and ‘sNOw Stigma!’ helped to connect the activity back to the treat they planned to reward their classmates with after they participated.

These students were so excited to keep project planning, they continued their brain-storming session long after our team wrapped up for the day! With all this motivation and passion propelling this group forward, we can’t wait to see the events they finally decide on for their school. Gateway MS is more than eager to end stigma. What a fantastic way to start your first year-keep up the great work. Welcome to the family!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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TJHS: S.H.-and Lots of Empathy!

TJHS: S.H.-and Lots of Empathy!

The Stand Together program welcomes another newcomer to our line-up of schools: Thomas Jefferson High School! Welcome!

The group had their first official ST workshops on two Tuesdays in December, however they had already been meeting as a group in preparation for the training, discussing their thoughts about mental health and brainstorming ideas to end stigma in their school. This group came together on their training days eager to get started, but a bit timid. That would quickly change!

After setting clear ‘community agreements’ to create a ‘safe space,’ the students began to ease into team-building and education. The first workshop was all formal training about mental illness, substance use disorders, and the effects of stigma. Not only did TJHS learn new information about mental health and wellness, they also learned new things about one another.

During the ‘Cross the Line’ activity, the group shared they were surprised to share some of the same struggles as their peers. Stand Together members also noticed it was a challenge to share their concerns; they care a lot about what their peers are going through and didn’t want to add any more stress onto others. Group members shared how much they feel sad when they see other peers and staff going through hard times and they want to use this program to really change the culture of their school.

Thinking about what they learned at the first workshop, the students came up with a list of very important information they wanted their peers and staff to know, including:
-taking mental and substance use disorders seriously
-knowing that #youarenotalone if you struggle with something
-don’t be afraid to #talkaboutit!
The group brain-stormed different ideas to create their anti-stigma projects. One idea was a popcorn stand during lunch periods. They wanted it to be interactive with a trivia game wheel and different colored popcorn that featured the 1:4 ratio of individuals affected by these disorders. They also discussed having a school-wide assembly to raise awareness about mental health and stigma. Not only do ST members want to get the right facts out to their peers, this group also wants their teachers and staff to feel comfortable enough to check-in on the students they interact with daily. TJHS is really tackling a lot of issues in their first year!

Empathy is a huge part of the TJHS motto and this project’s theme. With this ‘super-power’ in their toolkit, we have no doubt their first year in Stand Together will have a lasting impression on their school.

Welcome to the club! We’re happy to have you and excited to see your projects!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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DL Lancers: Armed with SHE, Defeating STIGMA

DL Lancers: Armed with SHE, Defeating STIGMA

We’re pleased to welcome Deer Lakes High School to the Stand Together program this year! Having worked with this school district in a previous position, I was anxious to return and see how things have changed since then-and maybe run into a few of my old students along the way! That didn’t end up happening, but I did meet an amazing group of youth that were full of passion, laughter, and love.

Although slow to start (they are teenagers and it was early in the day), they quickly gained energy and momentum as we went through the exercises. It was a very a diverse group and students were eager to participate, learn, and get to know each other throughout the two training workshops. They asked a lot of questions, came up with a bunch of great ideas, and made some new friends along the way.

As you can see, the group had so much fun. All I could see were smiles, hear was laughter, and feel the excitement as the youth participated in activities to learn more about mental and substance use disorders and stigma and come together as a group:
-4 Corners: the classifications, effects, and examples of substances
-Ships’n’Sailors: understanding the feelings of isolation and consequences of stigma
-WHAPP! learning how to recognize the most common signs and symptoms of mental and substance use disorders
-Sparkle: put it all together to review and reiterate that mental illness is not a choice (1:4 students don’t even have a chance to answer a question)
-WWYD? students role-play in various scenarios to recognize the signs and symptoms, respond, and provide SHE (support, hope, and encouragement)
-Common Ground: a kind of ‘musical chairs’ to find similarities between the students
-The Big Five: the most important pieces of our training: 1) You matter; 2) You’re not alone; 3) SHE; 4) 1 in 4; 5) WHAPP.
Recognizing the signs, spreading awareness and promoting social inclusion, and knowing how to respond are how Stand Together stops stigma. And we know these Lancers are going to slay.

The second day was an amazing experience. The students couldn’t wait to share their ideas and plan projects to stop stigma in their school. Utilizing the education and experiences they obtained in the first workshop, students focused on what they thought their peers and staff should know. Then they viewed some project examples-and the juices were flowing! There were so many ideas, they might run out of time this year! So much to do, so little time!

The group settled on plans for a kick-off assembly with a recovery speaker, 1:4 visual, and Kahoot! trivia, as well as three definite events to be held throughout the year: a myth/fact spinning wheel, a rubber ducky pool/pull, and a balloon release to visualize the 1:4 ratio and unite by sharing their own experiences with mental and substance use disorders. The group plans to track these balloons to see their impact after they let them go as well, as they release not only their challenges, but also information to the greater community.

One of my favorite parts of the day is when students think about their own interests and talents and commit to contributing a specific skill to the project:

We absolutely cannot wait to see these projects in action! I’m so excited to be able to share my story with the students and staff at the assembly and be a part of this amazing experience. Keep an eye out for posts on January 30th!

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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Hillel & Yeshiva Tag Team Against Stigma

Hillel & Yeshiva Tag Team Against Stigma

Stand Together is excited to welcome two more new schools this year. From Pittsburgh’s very own Jewish Community in Squirrel Hill: Hillel Academy and Yeshiva girls’ schools! Due to a generous grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and other supporters, we were able to expand to all five (!) schools in this community.

Both schools trained together at Hillel this past November, right before the holiday. Students filed into the training space quiet and curious, but that didn’t last very long! The students got warmed-up to the topics discussed and enjoyed competing in the trivia games that aided in review. It was a busy two days! Laughter, team-building, and deep discussion happened with ease. These young ladies ranged in age and grade levels from 7th through 12th grades. As each training day went on, they discovered fascinating things they had in common with one another, much deeper than their obvious connection with culture and religion.

Although the community is very tight knit, the students still had to get to know each other better as they attend different schools. The teams learned more about themselves, the Stand Together program, and their trainer, Montaja. As each topic of the day was discussed, students started to speak more openly about their personal thoughts about the stigma surrounding mental and substance use disorders. These young ladies weren’t afraid to ‘Speak up!’ and ‘Speak out!’ about how challenging it is to reach out for help even with adults they trust around them. Without hesitation, the students created a long list of things that they’d like their peers and staff to know about mental health and stigma. Some of the things they mentioned included:
-Mental illness is invisible.
-Having a mental and/or substance use disorder is not ‘wrong.’
-Therapy is okay for anyone and everyone.

By the second training workshop, both schools were ready to plan and design their projects. After viewing other schools’ ideas and discussing some challenges they may have to work around due to the size and culture of their school, both groups put together solid ideas to carry out their project and the Stand Together mission.

Hillel Academy girls’ team are working on a year-long theme that will ‘bar the stigma.’ They’re going to kick-off the year with a hot drink bar to ‘scorch the stigma…not your tongue!’ This clever project will host a table decorated with myths, facts, and other information to start the conversation about mental and substance use disorders and stigma. To incentive their peers and staff to enjoy a cozy cup of tea or cocoa during the cold winter months and start talking about mental health.

Yeshiva girls are planning on using the Stand Together acronyms as a way to start the conversation:
-W.H.A.P.P. (signs & symptoms: withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, personality change, and poor self-care)
-S.T.I.G.M.A. (examples of stigma: stereotyping, teasing, inappropriate language, myths, and attitude)
-S.H.E. (how to help: support, hope, encourage)
Their event includes a drink stand to further educate their peers and staff, focusing on how mental and substance use disorders are invisible and effect everyone.

It’s clear to see both schools are off to a great start. They are more than excited to get the facts out to their student body. What a way to start your first year! Welcome to the club-we can’t wait to see your projects roll out!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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SPHS Eagles are Stronger than Stigma

SPHS Eagles are Stronger than Stigma

The South Park High School Stand Together team returns for its second year in the program. With the help of a returning member, new recruits filled the activity room. This year, the group is fueled by girl power! These young ladies know how challenging it is to speak freely about struggling with mental and substance use disorders and they want to make sure their fellow peers know that their group is all-inclusive and a very important program in their school.

Through-out the two training workshops, this mixed group of students learned about mental and substance use disorders, as well as stigma. They participated in several team building activities and by the end of the second day, new friendships were budding. To create a deeper bond, the group took part in ‘Common Ground,’ as well as partnering up with a peer they didn’t know very well. The girls also participated in our most meaningful activity, ‘Cross the Line.’ It didn’t take long for each participant to realize that they have a lot more in common with their fellow classmates than they thought before and that no one is alone.

After a full day of education and discussing the facts, these Eagles were ready to soar into project planning and sharing ideas. After a quick review and a few more team-building activities, the students shared their thoughts on what they’d like their peers and staff to know. They all agreed that #itsokaytonotbeokay. The students broke into small groups to work through their ideas and came up with several seasonal activities for the school-year.

A major event at South Park is their Winter Festivus. Capitalizing on this existing event, they will be hosting their first ‘truth booth.’ At this ‘booth,’ peers and staff can anonymously share their feelings on a custom-made snowflake. The students will then use the snowflakes as a decoration in their school and, more importantly, to display the impact of mental and substance use disorders. The group also plans on having seasonal truth booths through-out the year to continue to promote awareness and social inclusion.

They want to continue to promote social inclusion with a 1:4 day activity fair. To attract more males to participate, they decided to make a sort-of athletic competition and have a trivia 1:4 game toss. The 1:4 theme would be displayed on the bottles with the slogan, ‘Don’t bottle it up!’ After answering questions and tossing rings, they would be able to earn prizes.

With catchy slogans and fun prize ideas, we’re certain these projects will have a lasting impression on their school. Keep on soaring above stigma-we’re looking forward to your school projects!

Written by Montaja, trainer

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