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Students Stand Together to end mental illness stigma

Emily Stimmel
July22/ 2015

Mental illness is often kept secret, to devastating effect. About half of American students 14 and older who live with mental illness drop out of school. Up to three-quarters of youth in juvenile detention are coping with at least one mental illness. And suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers.

With funding from Staunton Farm Foundation, more than 100 students from six schools across Allegheny County recently participated in Stand Together, an educational campaign designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Students also generated ideas for creating a culture of support. Here are some highlights:

Arsenal Middle School

A display at the school featured 100 ways to be a friend to someone struggling with mental illness and Stand Together members decorated a mannequin—viewed by students, families and community members—with coping skills and facts. Saltworks Theatre performed plays addressing the effects of addiction and stereotyping and students held a fundraiser for Sojourner House, a program for mothers coping with addiction.

Propel Braddock Hills High School

Meet and Greet Café encouraged students to start conversations about mental health. “Truths” about mental illness were printed on the sleeves of some cups, while others featured “dares” encouraging students to share feelings and personal stories. In a similar vein, students distributed bracelets with the name of a classmate. Each student was then tasked with learning something new about the person whose name appeared on their bracelet. New-found friends then posed together in the Today I Met photo booth.

South Allegheny Middle School

Through Buddy Ball Pit, students were randomly invited to jump into a ball pit, where they were paired with peers and prompted to start conversations. Students and teachers were asked to don white t-shirts for the Colorful Compliment Tees activity, in which they used fabric markers to write positive messages on each other’s shirts as a confidence-boosting exercise.

West Mifflin Area High School

A mural entitled “Rising from the Ashes” was displayed in the school cafeteria as a visual representation of the Stand Together team’s collective feelings regarding mental health. The group also hosted a Glow Dance, decorating the gymnasium with positive words and stars representing victims of mental illness and suicide, only visible under black light. Guests wore colored glow necklaces with each color representing a different issue, from having a friend with a mental illness to knowing someone coping with addiction or losing a loved one to suicide. The dance raised money for re:solve Crisis Network and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

By creating opportunities for open dialogue, Stand Together brings attention to the seriousness of mental illness while stripping away the shame that stands in the way of treatment. The activities above illustrate a commitment to giving a voice to individuals coping with mental illness and addiction.

Featured Photo: West Mifflin Area High School Glow Dance, photo courtesy of West Mifflin Area High School

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.