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Teen filmmakers fighting stigma of mental illness, hosting Facebook Live event

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 11/7/2017

Nov. 07--S-T-I-G-M-A.

It's labeling someone.

It's creating a feeling of being ostracized.

It's a generalization or stereotype.

It's a judgment or discrimination to make an individual think they are different.

It's painful.

But there is a group of teens who want to end the stigma associated with mental illness in young people their age.

They produced the "Reel Teens Pittsburgh: A Mental Health Special," which explores the stigmas associated with mental health. The Reel Teens are part of Steeltown Entertainment Project's Youth and Media program. Steeltown, based on Pittsburgh'sSouth Side, has a mission to build a vibrant and sustainable entertainment industry in Pittsburgh. The company develops homegrown talent, connects industry professionals with Pittsburgh roots and promotes the area as a regional production center.

This half hour film delves into issues of anxiety and depression in an age where social media isn't always kind to these young people.

The documentary is only the beginning.

The Reel Teens (@thereelteenspgh on Facebook) want to continue the conversation, so they will host a Facebook Town Hall at 3:30 p.m.Nov. 9 live from the Point Park University'sCenter for Media Innovation studio in Pittsburgh, with teens helping teens cope with mental illness. The continuing message is inspired by Allegheny County's Stand Together program, a peer-to-peer initiative that inspires and equips youth to take action against stigma associated with mental illness and substance use disorders.

Members of the Reel Teens Pittsburgh rehearse for thier upcoming Facebook Town Hall to fight the stigma of mental health issues in teenages on Nov. 9 at Point Park University'sMedia Center for Innovation in Pittsburgh.

Photo by Steeltown Entertainment

The Reel Teens slogan is "We Stand Together: Help and Hope."

Students, teachers, administrators and parents from schools across Western Pennsylvania have been invited to watch the live feed. Anyone viewing the piece can ask a question via Facebook or email (

Steeltown collaborated with Leading Education and Awareness for Depression (LEAD), a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh whose mission is to raise awareness about depression.

Getting the word out is so important, says Kathleen Moss, executive director of LEAD

"LEAD and lots of other mental health organizations and professionals are seeing an increase in young people experiencing concerns, and we want to try and really break that stigma and get the message across that you aren't alone, and it's OK, so don't feel embarrassed. Seek help. Talk about it," Moss says. "The more schools we can reach, the more young people we can help. Teens often listen to other teens, rather than to an adult. Hearing something from a peer will have more of an impact. I am excited for this Facebook Town Hall."

Teens are often overlooked, says Carl Kurlander, president and CEO at Steeltown.

"This is really a professional piece the teens have done," Kurlander says. "We gave suggestions, but they told us. 'This has got to come from us. This is what we want to do with this.' I am so proud of what they've done, and what they are planning to do for the Facebook Town Hall."

"The teens' documentary was so helpful and brought so much hope to those suffering from the stigma that we had to continue the conversation," says Michael Bartley, vice president of production and development for Steeltown.

The statistics are alarming. According to Stand Together, one in four youth have a mental or substance use disorder in any give year, one in five teens have thought of suicide and two out of three youth with a mental health disorder do not receive the care they need.

The Reel Teens want to help.

"Don't say things like, 'you are crazy,' or 'that's crazy,' " says Reel Teens anchor Alex Hunter, a 2017 Allderdice High School graduate. "For teens, everything we do is broadcast on social media. It can be depressing to see and hear some things. We post something, and we want to see how many 'likes' we get. And if we don't get many likes, then we can be sad."

Words can sting, says Serenity King, a sophomore at Gateway High School and Reel Teens anchor. She says during production of the documentary, there were times she would tear up thinking about teens who are suffering and who need help. She says the hardest part is knowing what to say.

"I didn't want to mess up and say something that comes off as rude," King says. "Saying the wrong words can be hurtful. With such stigmas, there are times you can't see how you are hurting someone just because of what you say."

"We hope this Facebook Town Hall can have a real influence and we think it will," Hunter says. "It's about being positive. Some people think teenagers are just attention seekers, but we aren't. Some are really struggling and need help, they need to be able to reach out and know someone cares."

A lot of high schools will address physical health and nutrition but not always mental health issues, the teens say. Bringing together schools from all over the region to discuss this topic via the Facebook Town Hall and hearing other viewpoints can hopefully create a discussion and foster progress in a segment of the population where mental illness isn't always talked about, the teens say.

"They can connect with other teens, and we are hoping this will be a way for them to do that," says Hunter. "When we started this project, we said (to our advisors and mentors) if we are going to make this show we shouldn't be their puppets. We wanted it to be our show."

Hunter conducted a one-on-one interview with a friend Emma, a Pitt student, who entered a treatment program at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland because of struggles with anorexia.

"I wanted to be the thinnest person in the room," says Emma in the documentary. "The hardest part is realizing you are a person outside of anorexia. It's something that isn't talked about."

Ella of Brighton Heights shared her story of being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She says it's different than you read in books and see in movies.

"Don't let it define you," she says. "Because you choose your life."

Hazell, who shares his struggles with depression in the documentary through the Project Silk program in Pittsburgh, talks about how dancing helps "free himself," because it's relaxing.

Students at Propel Braddock Hills shared their thoughts by writing them out.


The Reel Teens want to get the message across that it's OK to be who you are and to know that you aren't alone, says Christian Brown, a junior at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, who will be the social media coordinator for the Facebook Town Hall.

"Don't let mental illness define you," Brown says.

In their research, Reel Teens interviewed other students as well as experts across the region to get their input and share their thoughts and feelings about this much-needed talked about subject.

In a visit to Propel Braddock Hills they created a bubble and had the students write their feelings about mental health. Some of the comments included "Share how you feel," and "Take deep breaths" and "Be yourself."

Dr. Ana Radovic, of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville, who has researched youth and mental health issues, says a lot of people have these symptoms and it affects them.

"When they get treatment, they feel better," she says.

The Reel Teens also ventured into the community where they interviewed people walking through Market Square to discuss the issue and happened to run into Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Peduto says mental health is a brain chemistry illness.

"We need to understand it is an illness," Peduto says. "One that needs to be treated, and can be treated."

It is getting better, but more needs to be done," says Fitzgerald. "There is still work to do," he says. "It is incumbent upon all of us to know about this, because it touches all of us."

Details: 412-251-0890 or

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062 or or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.


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