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Teens Write 'Away' The Stigma Of Mental Illness

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Teens work on a prompt in the "Writing Away The Stigma" workshop at Pittsburgh's Creative Nonfiction Foundation in Garfield.

At the offices of Pittsburgh’s Creative Nonfiction Foundation in Garfield, high schoolers experiment with writing in the style of a storied American literary institution—The Onion, a satirical online newspaper.

Facilitator Yona Harvey, an assistant creative writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh, read an article titled “Woman Apologizes to Therapist for Monopolizing Conversation.”

“Acknowledging that she had self-centeredly done almost all of the talking, area woman Rebecca Walsh apologized to her therapist Friday for monopolizing their conversation,” read Harvey. “'Sorry--God, I’m not even letting you get a word in edgewise.’”

The kids laugh quietly. Many have been in therapy since they were young, so they get the joke.

This workshop, titled “Writing Away The Stigma,” is an eight-week course for high schoolers with mental health diagnoses like depression, anxiety, bipolarism or borderline personality disorder. 

Next, Harvey told the kids to try their hands at satire, and they do, poking fun at religion, family photos, and the shame of taking anti-depressants. One participate named Jacob wrote an Onion-like news article about a woman who, despite her fun job, struggles with depression. 

"Maria said she worked as a corgi breeder, but who could be sad with a job like that?" read Jacob, who didn't want to give their last name. "The patient decided to not release a statement, except stating 'Not even corgis can remedy my years of childhood trauma.'"

Mental health advocate Alyssa Cypher, another workshop facilitator, said people often weaponize someone’s mental illness as a way to discredit their feelings. Through autobiographical writing, these kids are learning to combat societal prejudice by controlling the narratives around their own mental health issues.

“I think being able to explain yourself in such an articulate way can really help, to not really prevent [discrimination from] happening, but to try to fight back against it,” she said.

At the end of the workshop the teens will read excerpts of their work at events around Pittsburgh in May and June. 

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.