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!
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!
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! 🙂
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)
North Allegheny Senior High School is returning for their second year in Stand Together and what a whirlwind it has been! Their team was able to complete two of their activities before the ‘quarantine’ went into effect and have really left an impression on their school this year, excelling beyond their previous work last year.
NASH’s first project was an interactive anti-stigma fair with various stations of educational activities for their peers. Building off of last year’s peer-to-peer presentations, they went many steps further this year. In 2019, the group prepared a moving video (link) of students and staff sharing their personal experiences with mental health and substance use disorders. They then broadcast this movie to students during their gym classes and engaged the students in a true/false activity accompanied by a PowerPoint of education and review of resources.
This year, the team hit it out of the park! (Can you tell we’re missing baseball?) Instead of a small classroom of students with a video and a presentation, students created a huge event with activities for all the students to rotate through. They also produced another video (link), this year focusing on treatment and recovery. Students again shared their struggles, but also talked about how they bounced back and who-and what-helped them along the way. After the video, students went through various stations around the room to learn about stigma, challenge myths, and use physical activities as a metaphor for mental health challenges: –‘Stigma Ducks’ (a play on words) – educating students about the S.T.I.G.M.A. acronym* and challenging students to think about the consequences of stigma. –‘Be a Helping Hand Obstacle Course’ – students went through the ‘course’ blind-folded-only one person got to have a peer help them as they went through. This activity signified the importance of S.H.E.* and the support of family and friends when someone is struggling with a mental and/or substance use disorder. Students received a mini hand clapper for participating. (Get it?!) –Myth or Fact spinning wheel –1 in 4 Hoops – 1 in 4 individuals got a football instead of a basketball to show how mental and substance use disorders make it harder for the 1:4 individuals that struggle with them. –The Pledge – students read and signed the pledge on a huge poster to show their commitment to ending stigma in their school. Whew! That’s a lot of education and awareness in one event!
The group followed that amazing event with another that covered all three of our goals: their take on a ‘truth booth.’ Students and staff alike were encouraged to visit the stand and select a color-coded tiger (their mascot) paw or paws that represented themselves to add to the ‘tree.’ – Purple : I personally deal with a mental illness and/or substance use disorder. – Green : I am a friend or family member of someone with a mental and/or substance use disorder. – Blue : I support or advocate for someone with a mental and/or substance use disorder. – Yellow : One way that I can help someone with a mental and/or substance use disorder is to… (fill-in-the-blank)**
The impact was remarkable. Multiple students and staff shared their own experiences with mental and/or substance use disorders (‘I have…’ ‘I have a brother…’ ‘I am a cousin to someone that has a substance use disorder.’) Without being asked to, students disclosed some of their struggles; others wrote inspirational messages for their peers that were experiencing this issues: -‘I will be okay.’ -‘You are strong and you are worthy.‘ -‘Last year was extremely rough. The recovery I had was huge…but there’s much more to improve on.’ -‘Be kind to yourself.’ -‘You’re never alone.’ -‘I have a good friend that deals with one. Much love to her.’
‘Schizophrenia does not have the right to control you.’
I can’t believe how eager students were to participate and how vulnerable they were willing to be with each other. Even though it was anonymous, students and staff had a visual reminder that they were not alone and that we’re all in this together. We all are affected by mental health and substance use disorders in some way and mental health is just as important as physical health. These youth are addressing myths and breaking down barriers to treatment by normalizing discussions about mental health in their school communities. After students put their paw on the tree, they were given a package of resources and treats for participating, including how students could help a peer, Resolve crisis cards, End the Stigma: NA Stand Together stickers, and a green bead necklace to remember the event.
I was so glad that I was able to attend and participate in these events. I could tell the students were having fun and engaging in the activities, but were also having intimate and sometimes intense conversations about mental and substance use disorders and the stigma associated with them. The team also plans to design a permanent mural for their school to remind them of the program, the pledge, and NASH’s commitment to ending stigma. Congrats on another job well done! Thanks for all your doing-you’re changing lives!
Back at it again for the second time, Woodland Hills High School’s Stand Together team returns to shift the culture in their school when it comes to speaking up and out about mental health.
Woody High students came together on two days in January and both new-comers and returning students were ready to really make an impact in their school with the Stand Together message. This year, the group started meeting long before the training workshops took place to get a jump-start on the year. What dedication!
The first day of training re-introduced the students to the important signs and symptoms of mental and substances use disorders and refreshed their memories on what factors cause these emotional struggles. The Stand Together workshops strengthened the already strong bond this group had created during the pre-training meetings. Friendly competition arose when reviewing the information during trivia games and a unity formed while sharing their own experiences during and after Cross the Line.
The second workshop was more hands-on: project planning. Returning members shared feedback with their peers from last year’s activities. They had even handed out pencils with a survey link before the workshops to get more feedback from the larger student body. Team members shared what they want their peers and staff to know when it comes to reaching out for help and even just talking about the struggles they may be dealing with. They want their teachers to know the right information and resources to provide effective support when students come to them. They also want their peers to know that mental and substance use disorders are more common than we think and that it’s okay to get treatment. These students see the need and want to shift the culture and dismantle stigma.
The group brain-stormed elaborate new ideas and revisited ideas from last year with a twist. They really want to focus on providing clear information in a fun and engaging way. The group plans to hold a school assembly and mental health Kahoot! game tournament, as well as a possible ice cream social.
Staying true to Stand Together’s mission and goals, Woodland Hills is ready to rise up to the challenge again. We have no doubt that they will surprise us with their anti-stigma events this year. We can’t wait to see all your hard work in action!
As we come to the end of Men’s Health Month, I wanted to talk about mental health from my perspective. I hope that in doing so you might find the common thread of human experience that binds us as a society. In writing this, may I first say that I am not an expert on mental health. However, I do get to play one at work each day in my role as a Recovery Specialist. Anyone who knows me will confirm my lack of authority on the topic, so I am in no position to preach to anyone. However, I am quite willing to talk about what I know best, my story. My story is common in the African American male community. You’ve seen it or presumed it, men neglecting their mental health to the detriment of their family, community and society. I was no different, I waited until I was 50 and out of functional relationships to wake up and address a few things.
I am a strong African-American Man. I am the parent of children who have grown up to contribute to the world. I breezed through grad school with a 3.75. I’ve had a success filled career in Education and Mental Health Services that has lasted over 30 years. I coached a high school basketball team that scored 82.0 points per game with only one player over 6’. I was hit by a moving train and walked away relatively unharmed (and because of that). I have earned the right to wear a cape and a big S for ‘superhero’ on my chest.
Also, I am an African American male with a mental illness: depression. I have spent my share of hours in the therapist’s office. I know recovery for me, is a process I must work on daily. At times, it takes a village to keep me on task.
I used to be ashamed and secretive of the reality of having depression, but now I’m proud of the life I live. Now my life is an integrated whole, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
I know that pushing aside the leotard to reveal the inner workings of the person behind the S does not make me any less of a strong African American male. Superhero status is not really required. I cannot save the world and often I am the one who needs saving. Like many people, I once felt that having a mental illness was a sign of weakness. So I avoided treatment.
As a mental health professional, I spent lots of time convincing people otherwise, but when it was my turn I felt going to the psychiatrist was a sign of failure. I tried running, yoga, drinking, smoking, meditation and most of self-help books in the Carnegie Library catalog. Anything but mainstream medical attention. I did not want to go to a psychiatrist because “nothing is wrong with me I’m not crazy!” But I had no issue going to the dentist, my primary care doctor, or orthopedist.
Like many African American males, I stigmatized mental illness in a way we do not stigmatize obesity, diabetes, hypertension and so many chronic and life-threatening illnesses prevalent in our community. We take pills to lose weight or lower our blood pressure but not to get or stay mentally well. According to the mythology that surrounds the strength of African American men, “falling apart” is just not something we do. We survived the Middle Passage, slavery, racial oppression, economic deprivation and a few political campaigns. We know how to “handle our business”, “be a man” but we see therapy as the domain of “weak”, neurotic people who don’t know what “real problems” are.
So how do African American men begin to eliminate the stigma of mental illness so that we can get the help we need and support those who might need it? May I offer a few suggestions?
Talk about it.
Don’t whisper or gossip about it.
Talk about it at the party.
Talk about it at church.
Talk about it on TV/the radio/social media
With our loved ones
With our doctors
If we can talk about our high blood pressure, our asthma, our lung cancer we can talk about our depression. Support each other in getting help. We send friends to the doctor for nagging back pain, so send them to get relief from their mental and emotional pain too. And don’t forget to be a friend and ask them how they are doing from time to time. Don’t stigmatize the brain! It is attached to the body, so mental illness is a physical illness.
Finally, support people who share their stories of mental health disorders. It is time to show that the faces and lives of African Americans with mental illness are not just the faces and the lives of the homeless person talking to the unseen. It is my face and my life and the faces and lives of others just like me. “Coming out” requires courage. Like any other consciousness raising process, a range of role models who represent a variety of experiences with mental illness will change perceptions.
As a local community we have a list of accomplished African American men to inspire us in our various endeavors. Andrew McCutchen, Ju Ju Smith-Schuster and Coach Tomlin come immediately to mind. We need a list of African Americans with mental illness who survived and thrived. No doubt due to stigma it was difficult to find the names of locally well-known African Americans with a “confirmed” history of mental illness and this is not the place for gossip or rumor, so I will start the list with me:
My name is Bill Boyce and I have depression. I am a father, athlete, artist, writer, musician, social activist, mental health professional and as sane and happy a person as you would ever want to meet. My mental health disorder does not define who I am.
-Written by Bill, STU Recovery Specialist
(The images above are African American males that have shared their experiences with mental health conditions: Kid Cudi, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, Wayne Brady, Jay-Z, and Brandon Marshall)
As Pride wraps up for the year, I find myself to proud of how far Pittsburgh has come in supporting its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, etc. (LGBTQ+) population. Pride serves as a platform for LGBTQ+ people to combat the prejudice and discrimination they face on a daily basis with positivity, love and dignity. Seeing an increase in support for Pride from the general public and businesses this year, as well as rainbow lights shining at City Hall, has been a step in the right direction. Thousands marched at Pittsburgh Pride Parade this past Sunday in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
But Pride isn’t something that LGBTQ+ people can turn to for support year round. Therefore, when LGBTQ+ people are targeted and socially discriminated against, it can leads to an increase in suicidal ideation; LGBTQ+ youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide. Fortunately, resources like The Trevor Project [1-866-488-7386] and the Trans Lifeline [(877) 565-8860] provide support for LGBTQ+ youth. Family acceptance and social support also help to protect against mental illness, including depression and anxiety, as well as help to prevent suicidal behavior and substance abuse. In addition, acceptance can allow LGBTQ+ people to have greater access to healthcare resources.
Acceptance is so important when it comes to both LGBTQ+ identities and mental illness because of the stigma attached to both communities. The fear of what others may think if you come out as being LGBTQ+ or having mental illness is bad enough that people don’t get help . Concealing one’s mental health concerns, however, makes it difficult to receive help or be referred to vital resources. This is where a local organization like PERSAD CENTER comes into play.
PERSAD works to connect LGBTQ+ people of all ages to the resources they need. These resources include counseling, affordable services, giving aid to individuals who seek to change their lives (perhaps along the lines of substance abuse recovery), and more. Having an LGBTQ+ centered organization like PERSAD provide counseling is a game changer. People who face stigma both from their LGBTQ+ identity and mental health status can get the help they need without worrying about the social discrimination and prejudice they could face from a regular counselor. PERSAD serves as a safe space. More information about their counseling services can be found by calling 412-441-9786 (Monday-Friday 9am-5pm).
Additional resources like Pride, The Trevor Project, the Trans Lifeline, and PERSAD CENTER provide LGBTQ+ people who lack access to more traditional healthcare resources with the support they need to freely celebrate their identity, overcome adversity, and live a healthier life. The public must support these resources to improving the health of LGBTQ+ people. For more information about The Trevor Project and the Trans Lifeline, please read below.
The Trevor Project [1-866-488-7386] provides support for LGBTQ+ youth under the age of 25 through a 24-hour phone, chat (3pm-10pm daily), and texting (Monday-Friday, 3pm-10pm) services with counselors. The project also offers peer-to-peer support through TrevorSpace.
The Trans Lifeline [(877) 565-8860] is specifically geared towards transgender people who are going through a crisis, dealing with gender identity confusion and self-harm prevention. The Trans Lifeline is a phone line open 18 hours daily (11am to 5am).