Coping with any illness can be challenging. But those battling mental illness — especially teenagers — may also face worry over how they might be marginalized or rejected by others because of the stigma their problems can carry.
The Creative Nonfiction Foundation (CNF) is attempting to break down proverbial walls by “Writing Away the Stigma.” Now in its third year, this writing project is an extension of founder Lee Gutkind’s research and writing about the mental health field, and his exploration into the feelings of shame that often prevent people from getting the help they need.
In its two previous years, the program focused on adults. This year, with funding from The Grable Foundation, The Creative Nonfiction Foundation invited a group of local teens to put their thoughts to paper during a free, eight-week writing workshop. It began on March 7 at CNF’s headquarters in Garfield.
“We’ve been hoping to work with teens for a long time, because creative nonfiction is such a powerful, relatable and fluid genre,” says Lauren Boehm, CNF’s events and building manager. “We feel that the genre will really resonate with and empower teens who have complex stories to tell.”
Eleven participants in grades 9-12 were selected based on their essays about the challenges and satisfaction of confronting mental illness. Some wrote about their own struggles, while others explored the mental health challenges of a friend, peer or family member. Each week, the teens will learn creative nonfiction basics such as crafting scenes and characters, finding an audience, revising their work and preparing to read it in a public forum.
The goal is to give these students a place and a method to explore their feelings and give voice to experiences that can sometimes remain hidden. A mental health specialist will also be on-site during the workshop meetings.
Poet and essayist Yona Harvey, who teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and is a contributing writer to Marvel Comics’ bestselling “Black Panther” series, is facilitating the workshops. Additional guest lecturers will include Vivian Lee Croft, founder of Girls Write Pittsburgh.
Following a personal tragedy involving a family member, Harvey was a participant in the first adult workshop. After that, she was invited by Gutkind to lead the teen group, an experience she’s excited about.
“I get the benefit of, hopefully, helping these teens and seeing them address a topic that is difficult to write about,” she says. “I wish I had had people to write with and talk with at that age.”