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South Allegheny students stand up against stigmas of mental illness

| Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 7:25 a.m.
South Allegheny eighth-grader Madison Mathers talks with teachers Janel Biagiarelli and Shannon Campbell about mannequins used to illustrate stigma.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
South Allegheny eighth-grader Madison Mathers talks with teachers Janel Biagiarelli and Shannon Campbell about mannequins used to illustrate stigma.

South Allegheny students are taking a stand against the stigma associated with mental illness.

The district's middle school partnered with Pittsburgh Cares and Allegheny County Department of Human services by incorporating the Stand Together initiative into its character education classes.

Stand Together, a $105,000 regional program funded by the Staunton Farm Foundation, is intended to educate students on mental illness and stigma through interactive lessons and service projects. Ten districts across Allegheny County are participating.

“Through this initiative, students will have a better understanding of mental illnesses, how it feels to be stigmatized and ways to take self-directed action against stigma through service-learning projects,” Pittsburgh Cares program director Holly Turkovic said.

At South Allegheny, eighth-graders enrolled in the peer mentoring aspect of character education took part in workshops to learn facts and myths about mental health disorders and how to speak appropriately about mental health issues. They explored their creativity in designing two mannequins to put the idea of stigma on display at school.

To kick off a Stop the Stigma Week at South Allegheny Middle School, those mannequins were taken to classrooms on Monday during the character education sessions that cap each day.

Peer mentors defined stigma for students and explained a week of activities planned to share what they learned during the Stand Together workshops.

Eighth-grade math teacher Shannon Campbell said peer mentoring is about being positive role models.

“These students are teaching other kids what mental illness really is,” Campbell said. “They're being positive role models by explaining stigma and how to avoid it.”

Students administered a survey to gauge their classmates' perception of mental illness. It included true-or-false scenarios, and students were asked to share their thoughts on the statements' accuracy.

“We are going to repeat the survey at the end of the week to see if their opinions have changed,” eighth-grader Madison Mathers said.

Eighth-grade history teacher Janel Biagiarelli said she is impressed with the number of students supporting Stand Together.

“Already today 60 students have signed a pledge to avoid this stigma, and we want the entire middle school to do it,” Biagiarelli said. “I think it's going to be a very successful program, and I think students will learn a lot.”

More information is available online at standtogether.pittsburghcares.org.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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