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Stand Together aims to end mental illness stigma

Marty Levine
May08/ 2014

“The time is just right to end stigma associated with mental illness, and I think we’ve found a strategy to do so,” says Holly McGraw-Turkovic, director of youth programs for Pittsburgh Cares.

The group’s Stand Together program is that strategy: It brings groups of high-school kids together who have never associated with each other, teaches them about the prevalence of mental illness among people their age – one in five, McGraw-Turkovic says – and the damage that can come from stigmatizing their fellow students.

Kids participating in Stand Together workshops in their schools cover a mannequin with slogans reflecting what they’ve learned, and this new message board is placed in a prominent spot in the school. Then they apply to Pittsburgh Cares for grants of up to $1,000 to undertake special projects that bring these lessons more extensively to the other kids in their schools.

Participating schools this year are:

  • Environmental Charter School
at Frick Park
  • Propel Braddock Hills
  • South Allegheny Middle School
  • South Brook Middle School
  • West Mifflin Area Middle School
  • West Mifflin Area High School
  • Woodland Hills Junior High

The Propel school, for instance, used its grant to construct a “friend tent” decorated with anti-stigma signs and facts. Inside balloons are provocative questions about the subject. Students who are not (yet) friends enter the tent and pair off to use the floating questions to interview each other.

The school also held “One-in-Five Day” for all students to learn the stats about mental illness; an Instagram contest, during which students posed with signs bearing mental illness facts and posted them to their Instagram accounts with the same hashtag; and an anti-stigma video series, including public service announcement about mental illness, an undercover camera showing how kids react in tough situations portraying the isolation or mistreatment of those with mental illness, and Teen President videos along with the lines of the popular Kid President series. Some of the results of their project can be seen here.

At West Mifflin Area High School, the kids held “Stand Up to Stigma” week where participating students brought Stand Together workshops lessons to the rest of the school. It included a “truth booth”: a walled-off spot in their cafeteria that gave students the chance to step inside, write about their experience with, or thoughts about, mental illness on a white board, use the booth’s camera to take a picture of the message, and then erase it. These pictures were compiled for a video to show how common it is to deal with mental illness in friends, family or themselves. Some of this project is viewable here .

To conclude the week, an assembly presented the results of Stand Together lessons, as well as a guest speaker from Survivors of Suicide, who spoke about losing a sister.

“Her message was so powerful and really grabbed the attention of the students,” McGraw-Turkovic reports.

The rest of the schools are still working on their Stand Together projects and will come together on May 27 at the Heinz History Center to show their programs to the public.

“One of the students from West Mifflin Area High School shared her personal experience with how stigma made a devastating impact on her family” on the Stand Together blog, McGraw-Turkovic points out. “She wants more people to tell her story. And to keep talking about it.”

Schools wishing to get involved in Stand Together next year should send an email to hmcgraw@pittsburghcares.org.

Marty Levine