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Workshops educate students, dispel myths about mental illnesses

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 12:05 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Students at West Mifflin Area Middle School, paint a mannequin mask as part of the Stand Together campaign on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A mental illness anti-stigma campaign, Stand Together, is being conducted in some middle and high schools in the region under a grant that Pittsburgh Cares received from the Staunton Farm Foundation. Pittsburgh Cares is partnering with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health to educate students throughout Allegheny County about mental illness and its stigma through a series of interactive lessons and service projects. Faith Cosley, 13, right, and Amanda Nguyen, 13, left, 7th graders at West Mifflin Area Middle School, paint a mannequin as part of the Stand Together campaign on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ashley Lynch, 13, a 7th graders at West Mifflin Area Middle School, paints a mannequin leg as part of the Stand Together campaign on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.

Jenna Lynch plans to use what she learned at West Mifflin Area Middle School about mental illness stigmas, both in and out of school.

“I learned a lot about how to respect people more ... and how powerful words can be,” said Jenna, 14, an eighth-grader.

The middle school is one of 10 schools in Allegheny County with students participating in a new initiative that aims to educate youths about myths and stigmas associated with mental illnesses.

In the program, called Stand Together, about 20 students at each school take part in two one-day workshops at their respective buildings. They engage in team-building activities and interactive discussions and games about mental health disorders, myths about the illnesses, using appropriate language and creating a welcoming environment for students.

Each group of students will work on art projects using two mannequins in common areas of the schools, to remind their peers that people with mental illnesses should be treated like anyone else.

A Lawrenceville-based nonprofit, Pittsburgh Cares, is partnering with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' Office of Behavioral Health to present the program at 10 middle and high schools, said Holly Turkovic, director of youth programs for Pittsburgh Cares.

Stand Together was made possible through a $105,000 grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation, a Downtown-based organization that supports programs and services for people with mental illnesses.

One reason to create Stand Together was a desire to dispel myths, such as the belief that people with mental illnesses are more dangerous than other people, said Mike Gruber, system transformation coordinator at the Office of Behavioral Health.

Research has shown that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime, but high-profile incidents such as mass shootings involving suspects believed to have mental health issues lead people to for misconceptions, Gruber said.

“Those are few and far between compared to the many other homicides that occur in the U.S., but those are what people focus on,” he said.

Some West Mifflin students said they already are applying what they've learned.

Eighth-grader Cyahh Crowley, 13, enlightened her grandmother about such statistics this week when discussing the 2009 mass shooting at L.A. Fitness gym in Collier. “She wanted to know more about it,” Crowley said.

Children with mental disorders often fail to be properly diagnosed, lack access to treatment and have a lower quality of life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is based in Arlington, Va.

It is estimated that 13 to 20 percent of children in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and an estimated $247 billion is spent annually on childhood mental disorders, according to a report in May from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most commonly reported mental disorder affecting children 3 to 17 is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, 6.8 percent, followed by behavioral or conduct problems, 3.5 percent, the CDC reported.

Mannequins that the students are painting in Stand Together sessions will be used in a service learning project. Each group of students will apply for a mini-grant of $100 to $1,000 from Pittsburgh Cares, to complete a project.

Next year, five more schools will participate in Stand Together, which Turkovic said she hopes will become a national program.

Art teacher Chris Galiyas selected the 18 students participating in Stand Together at West Mifflin Area Middle School.

“I hope that they learn that not everyone is the same, and everyone is just dealing with their own issues. And I hope that they're just compassionate,” he said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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