A special high school program is succeeding in changing school culture as student designed projects help with social pressure.
Students wrote to reveal difficult truths – social stigma, mental illness, and the pressure to conform and fit in with the popular crowd were some of the topics.
At West Mifflin Area High School 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.