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 knew something was different about me from a very young age; I distinctively remember not feeling loved as a child-and that’s not a typical experience. It wasn’t long before my mental health conditions (MHC) emerged. Multiple mental health conditions frequently occur at once (co-morbidity) and can overlap in different ways; psychologists have recently discovered that all MHC are more connected than we ever thought.
Although I have bipolar disorder, I also have symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Depression is a phase of bipolar disorder, but the anxiety that accompanies it-and the in-between, baseline times-can be overwhelming. The important thing for me was not the diagnosis or the label, but discovering how to manage it and cope with my MHC on a personal-level. It took a while to find what works for me and sometimes I have to change my strategies, but as long as I stay aware and mindful of my feelings and their effects on my thoughts, I can minimize my struggle. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have to put a lot of effort forth every day to manage my health holistically, whether it’s attending therapy to talk through my emotions and experiences, exercise to promote the ‘good chemicals’ in my brain, or support from family and friends, I work hard to stay in balance. But it’s always worth it. I live with a mental health condition-but it doesn’t define who I am.
I am a person-first: a wife, lover of Mister Rogers, cat-mom, mental health advocate, friend, Christian, adventurer, foodie, and a person with a purpose. We’re all people-first – let’s start believing and treating each other like it; it makes all the difference.
Although Stand Together isn’t an ‘anti-drug campaign’ per se, we do discuss substance use disorders and their impact on the individuals that develop them. Alcohol is everywhere-on TV and social media and, for many youth, in their homes. It’s widely accepted because it’s legal and readily available and it’s heavily romanticized as a ‘right of passage,’ the ‘college way,’ or (and yes, I’m lame and use this word) ‘the cool thing to do.’ But the reality of the situation is that alcohol can be just as dangerous and deadly as any other substance and just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe or can’t become a problem.
I’m not going to bore you with a slew of statistics, but I wanted to note a few things I think are important to know about young adults and alcohol use. -11% of all alcohol consumed is by under-aged youth -18.6% of youth start drinking before the age of 13 -34.9% of teenagers have had a least 1 drink in the last 30 days -25% of teen car crashes involve an impaired, underage driver -Young adults that start drinking before age 15 are 4x more likely to develop substance use disorders than those who start at age 21 Clearly alcohol use by youth and young adults is a problem-and that’s why it’s important that we #talkaboutit!
A good place to start is to identify the reasons why people abuse (mis-use) or develop an addiction (dependence) on alcohol. Sometimes individuals may use substances to escape or deal with negative feelings, they might have an underlying mental health condition, use them to decrease social anxiety, or just to ‘fit in.’ Social and other media can pressure individuals into trying or using alcohol. The importance of getting good grades/into a good school, achieving in sports, or just the stress of everyday life can take its toll on an individual, especially if they already are at risk of developing or have an underlying mental health condition. If alcohol or other substances are readily available or someone sees them being used in the home, a young person could think that this is ‘normal’ and/or engage in the behavior, even at an earlier age. Right now, the coronavirus has people stuck at home experiencing loneliness and life changes far greater and more rapidly than ever before. The more stressors and risk factors an individual has in one’s life, the more likely they are to use alcohol and/or develop a substance use disorder. On an everyday basis we all encounter things that affect our mental health-how we deal with them is important.
Regardless of the reason an individual drinks, an alcohol use disorder can cause impairment in living, including health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. This includes lack of control, changes in behavior, and risky use, such as binge-drinking. Just as a mental illness affects many parts of an individual’s life, so does a substance use disorder, but it occurs with the use of a substance. And, like mental health conditions, a substance use disorder of any kind (including alcohol) can stem from biological, psychological, and environmental factors. No wonder its use is so prevalent!
Mental health and substance use disorders are clearly closely related and can not only have the same causes and effects, but also some of the same signs (remember W.H.A.P.P.*). Sometimes, individuals with a mental health condition use substances to mask the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing due to the disorder. This is called self-medicating. Often, it’s easier to use substances because someone might be afraid to or unable to get help and these substances-especially alcohol-are readily available. Many individuals that ‘self-medicate’ develop substance use disorders as a result of long-term use; this is called co-morbidity, or co-occuring disorders.
A lot of youth use alcohol and many young adults start drinking in high school or college. Although ‘experimentation’ is considered a part of the human experience (and by no means are we advocating this is okay), it’s important to be able to recognize that someone could be developing a substance use disorder. There are two kinds of disorders: abuse and addiction. An individual that abuses (or misuses) alcohol may engage in binge-drinking or excessive use (‘getting drunk’), but they’re still able to stop using; they are still in control and their use can fluctuate. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences: DUIs, hang-overs/black-outs, reckless behavior, promiscuity, and violence can all occur ‘under the influence.’ When an individual experiences withdrawal and tolerance without use, they are said to have developed an addiction (or dependence). An individual at this stage will drink every day, multiple times a day, and ‘crave’ or need the substance to perform daily tasks. Addiction is considered a disease because it physically changes and individual’s body and they depend on the alcohol to function. Without alcohol, the individual could experience physical symptoms, such as over/under-sleeping, shaking, cravings, and gaining/losing wait, as well as psychological symptoms (depression, anxiety, panic, etc.).
It’s important that when you notice any or all of these signs in yourself or someone you know that you reach out to an adult you trust to get help. I know it can seem embarrassing or that you’re going ‘behind someone’s back,’ but we want people to live a successful, meaningful life-without the use of alcohol-and you could save someone’s life. The person could deny that they have an issue or are struggling; this occurs frequently. If this happens, you can still talk to an adult and be there for your friend, letting them know that you care about them, you’re there for them, and you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to talk. (For more suggestions, check out our handout. << link)
The good news is that alcohol and other substance use disorders are treatable, there is hope, and recovery is possible. Treatment and recovery are unique to each individual and may include: -individual or group therapy/counseling -peer support/groups -mental health services -self-care (coping skills, exercise/healthy eating, spirituality, etc.) No matter the modality, treatment addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. With treatment from mental health professionals and the support from family and friends, individuals can have happy, healthy lives, YOU can connect an individual to an adult you trust to get that help and support them along their recovery journey (S.H.E.*).
Underage drinking and substance use affect everyone, just like mental health disorders. The more we educate ourselves and others, decrease the stigma associated with having these conditions and seeking help, and engage trusted adults when we’re concerned, we can prevent alcohol abuse and addiction and get individuals that are struggling the assistance they need to live a successful, meaningful life. Remember-we’re all in this together. You play an important role in connecting with your peers-take a chance, step out of your comfort zone, and reach out. You could change that person’s life!
*W.H.A.P.P. (the five signs: withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, personality change, poor self care) S.H.E. (how to help: provide support, hope, and encouragement) (link to handout)
West Allegheny High School is no stranger to Stand Together. This is their third year in the program and each year it gets better and better. Although some of the students may change, their passion for ending stigma and focus on education and engagement shine beyond their years.
One of West Allegheny’s priorities has always been education. Whether it’s in discussions with staff/faculty during professional development sessions or during peer-to-peer sessions, the team uses contact in small groups to connect with their audience and educate them in a way that is not only fun and engaging, but also incredibly valuable.
Since one of the team’s advisors is the physical education and health teacher, she was more than happy to share time with her classes to discuss mental health, after all: mental health is just as important as physical health! Students learned not only about the Stand Together program and the West A projects, but also about mental health diagnoses and each other. Members started by engaging their peers in Common Ground, an activity where students learn more about each other by moving seats when different statements apply to them. This helps break-the-ice and get people moving and talking.
The rest of the time was spent sharing information and engaging in a diagnosis/definition match game and Kahoot! This medium has been a favorite for many of our schools as it uses technology and competition to keep the students engaged while learning the information. Students also shared some resources and how individuals could get help if they were worried about themselves or someone else. They covered all three goals in this project: increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and encourage reaching out to a trusted adult! Woah!
West A’s squad also had a W.H.A.P.P. day for the students in their school. The team painted their faces with a hand-print to signify the ratio of 1:4 individuals that are affected by a mental health and/or substance use disorder. Painted in green (mental health) and purple (substance use) awareness colors, their peers could visualize the number of youth experiencing these conditions and were also reminded of the W.H.A.P.P. acronym-signs they could see that someone was struggling and needed emotional support.
During this activity, students learned what stigmatizing language is, how to recognize it, and positive words to replace it with instead of the negative connotations associated with mental and substance use disorders. Students wanted their peers to know that a person is just that-a person-first and that a behavioral health condition doesn’t define who someone is; that disorder is only part of who they are. Although it may affect that individual in many ways, people with mental and substance use disorders recover and have successful, meaningful lives.
Students demonstrated this by removing a red post-it note with stigmatizing language on it with a green note with a personal characteristic or appropriate word/phrase. Youth that engaged in the activity also received a ticket to win a gift card as a token of the team’s appreciation. By the end of the day, all of the red had been replaced with green in the shape of a green ribbon for mental health awareness! What a meaningful visual and physical activity for students to participate in!
Students also signed the anti-stigma pledge, agreeing to: -speak up and speak out against stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders in their school and community -not use stigmatizing language, like ‘psycho,’ ‘crazy,’ or ‘mental,’ to refer to anyone, whether that person has a mental illness or not -share information, resources, and experiences to spread awareness and acceptance -provide support and hope and encourage others to seek help when they’re struggling (S.H.E.)
The team also had plans for a mural that is still in the works. This whole quarantine thing has really dampened a lot of our teams’ plans, but West A continues to work virtually to educate their peers and provide resources. They have recently started an online campaign to provide their peers with tools to help them deal with anxiety and engage in self-care, become aware of the signs, and learn when and-more importantly-how to get help. This virtual project continues to keep the team’s momentum, even if they can’t hold events in person! How awesome is that?!
Thank you, West A, for another great year! We can’t wait to see the finished mural and follow your virtual project for tips. You’re changing the world-one student and staff member at a time!
We often hear: ‘Youth are our future.’ As cliche as it sounds, it’s 100% true. Change starts with you and YOUth across Allegheny County are paving the way for mental health education, resources, and parity by meeting with local legislators to discuss the future of mental health in our area.
Stand Together staff had the pleasure of assisting the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and PA Youth Advocacy Network in planning and implementing the Youth Mental Health Advocacy Workshop on Tuesday, March 3 during the Dan Miller Disability Awareness Summit-but the students did all the work. Members of Stand Together teams from CAPA, Montour, West Allegheny, and West Mifflin high schools joined students from other schools to gather their perspectives on teen mental health and work together to identify issues, formulate questions, and propose suggestions to advocate for mental health. Afterwards, the students had the opportunity to discuss their findings with members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate.
Team leads walked their groups through concerns and opportunities, current and proposed policies/bills, and the importance of youth voice in government. These weren’t easy issues either! Students discussed: -Addressing disparities in mental health; -Creating safe, inclusive school communities; -Educating teachers and students on mental health; -Equality in support for mental and physical health; and -Promoting suicide prevention and awareness. Stand Together’s goals address many of these areas: increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and reach out to an adult (which requires adequate training for staff and faculty). Because of this, Stand Together team members brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the tables that day!
Our students made some really introspective and keen observations and remarks: -‘It’s important to talk about mental health just as much as physical health in school…it needs to be stressed and ‘normalized.’ – Emma Dischner (HB 1696: Mental Health Parity) -‘The media needs to stop making suicide look like a way out.’ – Angela Brown, West A (SB 199: Suicide Prevention & Awareness) -‘Females tend to get more mental health attention in schools. Talking about mental health is a ‘choice,’ but because of the culture of toxic masculinity, it’s also not a choice. ‘Treatment’ is for the behaviors, not the cause (mental health)…A big part of it is changing the cultre surrounding mental health and making small changes.’ – Aiden Magley, CAPA (Federal: HRes480: Disparities in Mental Health) -‘It should be a conversation between youth and staff what Act 71 (suicide prevention education) looks like in schools. – Emma Dischner (HB 590: Ed. for Teachers & Students in MH) -A student from Montour agreed: ‘Teachers are afraid to reach out to students because they don’t know how to or are afraid to.’
The legislators were invested and had much to add: -‘You can’t reach your potential unless this issue of mental health is addressed.’ – Sen. Pam Iovino -‘What’s more important as a parent? That my son has a cavity or a mental health issue?…I think it (mental health) should be prioritized…We’re bringing students together, but we’re not talking about it enough and this can cause social isolation. We need to teach all health in fullness and connect people together.’ – Rep. Dan Miller -‘We need more human-centered policies that have real-world application (about the people, not the numbers). Engagement of students and citizens is so important.’ – Rep. Sara Innamorato
Students and legislators discussed a lot of key issues, but this is just the start. We need to keep talking about mental health in our schools and communities and advocate in government for policy reform and support. We will continue to support our students as they speak up and speak out against stigma and build a youth mental health advocacy movement that will change our county for years to come.
‘Keep it going…you are just as much our constituents as your parents are. Keep using your voice.’
-State Senator Lindsey Williams
Written by Danyelle, ST Coordinator & JHF planning team member
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!
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!
SciTech is ready to combat mental and substance use disorder stigma in their school! No stranger to the Stand Together program, this year students returned full steam ahead. With a mix of grade levels and experiences, this group of students spent two Fridays together, refreshing their knowledge of mental and substance use disorders, learning about each other, and planning projects for their school-mates. The team had been meeting before the training to really focus on what they’d like to see change in their school environment. Senior participants are really invested this year and determined to leave a mark in their high school before they move on to future endeavors.
This group has the energy and passion to really connect with their peers on a deeper level. After their first day of training and some review, the group generated ideas in mini-brainstorming sessions. Sparks of inspiration fueled their mission to really bridge the connection between students, teachers, and staff.
The SciTech Stand Together team discussed presenting educational sessions to their staff; they thought this would be more meaningful and impactful than having someone else come in and hold a professional development event. They also wanted a ‘grand-scale’ effort to increase social inclusion in their school; they decided to host an interactive and educational neon ‘glow dance’ for their student body to connect and learn while having a fun time. It’s clear this team is serious about making a change!
Welcome back, SciTech High! We cannot wait to see how your great ideas unfold into wonderful stigma-stopping projects in your school!
Shaler HS was another team that lost a large group of seniors from last year and is smaller than some of our other groups, but they definitely make up for it in passion and commitment. This group is only 10 members LARGE if you measure it by the size of their hearts!
One thing very special about this group is that they bring a wealth of personal experience to the table and aren’t afraid to #talkaboutit and be vulnerable with each other. Each individual’s experience was unique and we had some great discussions about stigma, the media, and how to combat it.
Like most teams, the Shaler HS group LOVED the buzzer games, but I’d say this was pretty intense! I’m glad we had lots of laughs playing Common Ground and thoughtful responses to the scenarios to balance it out. They had such a good time laughing and learning together and were ready to start their project planning filled with excitement and drive.
By the end of the second day, the group came up with several projects to reach their peers where they are (even if it means bathroom stalls), make connections and foster relationships with staff, and host a mental health a-WEAR-ness week to rally the whole school. They were also excited to use the LEAD/JED There’s Help All Around You posters to remind students that #itsokaytonotbeokay and #itsokaytogethelp.
We’re excited to see their projects in action this spring as they increase awareness, promote social inclusion, and start forming relationships with staff to encourage reaching out for help. 10 students, 3 goals, 3 project, and 2 advisors are ready to change their school-and the world!
Earlier this month, our team headed to West Mifflin Area High School to train their students. WMHS is no stranger to Stand Together-the program is 7 years young and West Mifflin has been with us from the beginning. Although the group members and numbers have changed over the years (at one point they had 74 on the team!), their passion, commitment, and leadership has never wavered.
The first day of training is always an interesting time because a lot of the students don’t know each other. WMHS, like many of our schools, uses an application process to select their students. Students are selected for their interest in mental health and decreasing stigma and their desire to enact change. Because any one can apply and the applications are reviewed anonymously, there’s guaranteed to be a very diverse group of students and this year was no different. There were members from all areas of the student body, students with leadership potential, and even some youth that have been personally connected with mental health and substance use disorders. We consider this a privilege and a valuable experience that adds to the depth of our teams.
This day was filled with fun activities, new friendships, laughter, and even some tears. The students explored the types of mental disorders and substances, brainstormed how to help peers who are struggling, and learned more about each other. Students connected through shared experiences and left the day empowered to address the stigma in their schools.
If the first day was full of information, the second day was packed with the students’ project ideas! Small groups came up with dozens of suggestions and additions jumped back and forth as they built on the foundations of vague ideas and dreams of a world without stigma. Students came up with ideas to increase education and awareness, promote social inclusion, and build relationships with staff and faculty so that students felt comfortable reaching out to an adult they trusted when they were worried about themselves or someone else. By the end of the day, they had at least six solid plans, including mental health a-WEAR-ness events with pjs, socks, and ribbons, reviving the infamous glo-dance, and even a unique take on meeting students where they are. (Spoiler alert: they’re putting something on the ground so students look up (literally) to support and hopeful messages! << We can’t wait to see this one!)
All in all our team had an amazing couple of days with this group. They always bring their A-game and we know they’ll engage their peers in creative and educational ways all year-long. Thanks for another great training, WMHS! We’ll be out to see your projects soon!
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!