Project arms students to handle social pressures

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On a Wednesday this spring, students at West Mifflin Area High School put pen to paper to reveal hard truths -- about social stigma, mental illness and the pressures of fitting in.

The platform was a "truth booth," a green-painted wood structure situated in the hallway of the Mon Valley high school. Inside the booth, students had the chance to write with anonymity about their hardships, inspiring empathy for the mental and behavioral problems their peers might be facing.

"I feel awkward in public," one slip of paper read. Another detailed a student's efforts to overcome a problem with self-harm. Some were inspirational, encouraging classmates to "stay strong," and others lighthearted: "I fall in love too easily."

The "truth booth" was one strategy in a week-long, student-designed project highlighting the dangers of stigmatizing mental illness among teens. Seven Allegheny County schools participated in the campaign, termed Stand Together and overseen by the nonprofit Pittsburgh Cares. Five schools presented their work Tuesday at the Heinz History Center.

For Ashley Walsh, a ninth-grader at West Mifflin, the project was deeply personal. In February 2013, her mother died of a drug overdose following a battle with bipolar disorder. Educating her classmates about mental health and mental illness helped her understand her mother's condition, said Ashley, one of the architects of the "truth booth."

"Now when people ask about my mom, it's easier to talk about it," she said. "I can see that it wasn't just a drug addiction; my mom had an illness."

In addition to the booth, Ashley and a handful of classmates created a PowerPoint presentation for ninth- and 10th-graders and organized "twin lunches" where they encouraged people to eat with classmates they didn't know.

Nikki Wilcox, another organizer, said the project produced encouraging results. Her classmates seem less judgmental and more prone to empathy, she said.

County administrators offered hearty praise for the students' work.

"You are the generation that is going to make the change," said Sue Martone of the county Office of Behavior Health.

Deb Hopkins, executive director of Pittsburgh Cares, used a personal anecdote to describe pervasive stigmatization of mental illness. Because of her aunt's disorder, Ms. Hopkins said, her cousins were mistreated as teenagers, leading one of them to drugs and alcohol. She said young people have the power to stop such abuse. Speaking up is the first step, she suggested.

One in five children faces emotional disturbances classified as clinically diagnosable mental health conditions, according to Pittsburgh Cares. Over the course of two workshops during the current school year, representatives from the nonprofit educated the middle and high school students about the prevalence of mental illness before coaching them through projects of their own, said Holly McGraw-Turkovic, director of youth programs for Pittsburgh Cares. Each group outfitted a mannequin with statistics about mental illness.

Claire Bachtell, an eighth-grade student at Woodland Hills Junior High School, said the project was useful in working through some of the issues she was facing this year with anxiety and depression.

"It sucks to be called crazy and weird," Claire said, describing a photo-booth system she helped develop where organizers asked their classmates, most of whom were perfect strangers, to pose as if they were best friends. The goal was to have people experience the same social discomfort individuals with mental illness might face on a regular basis, she said.

"You don't want anyone to feel like that," Claire said, adding with a smile that her own troubles have begun to subside.

Isaac Stanley-Becker:, 412-263-3775 or on Twitter @isb_isaac.

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