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By Lois Thomson

The "STEP UP" in STEP UP Westmoreland is an acronym that stands for "Students, Therapists, Educators, and Parents United in Prevention"; and that couldn't be more appropriate, because all of those groups – and more – are necessary to help in the prevention of mental health problems in young people.

STEP UP Westmoreland, founded three years ago, works in conjunction with Westmoreland County School Districts, and the Westmoreland County Office of Behavioral Health/Developmental Services. Jason Stragand, student services supervisor who joined two years ago, said what the organization learned was that mental health awareness and strategy is a growing need, and also that many different agencies were working on the problem; however, there wasn't a platform that brought everyone together.

In an effort to change that, STEP UP now holds monthly meetings with speakers knowledgeable about the mental health issues that surround kids today, and also speakers from Westmoreland County agencies who discuss the mission and vision of their agencies, and how they can be a resource.
Stragand said STEP UP will re-implement a facet of the program next month that involves three engagement groups: legislative, student, and event. He said the legislative branch tackles some of the larger issues, such as work done for advocating for mental health and mental health awareness. The student engagement group focuses on how to engage kids from each of the school districts in a mental health conversation. The event group hosts two events each year – a fundraising walk in the spring and some type of "stomp out the stigma event" in the fall that involves students.

"Most recently, we have given $500 to any school district interested in obtaining money to either start up or support an already-existing, student-led mental wellness group,” says Stragand. “Eight different school districts participated, and as a result, we have seen an increase in student-led groups inside of school districts, and an increase in engagement and enrollment in the student-led wellness groups."

Stragand admitted it can be difficult to see the impact of STEP UP because the group is not working inside schools every day like teachers or therapists are. However, he had a conversation with a Local Education Authority who said that the $500 STEP UP gave that district "'really breathed some life back into the student group because it was kind of fizzling out.' So that's just one example that was shared with me most recently.

"In a nutshell, STEP UP Westmoreland is a hub bringing people together to talk about and to tackle mental health issues and concerns, and also to stomp out the stigma that's often related to mental illness."

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