Students use the arts to shine a light on mental health during pandemic

painting by olivia de guzman

Image: A painting by Olivia De Guzman, a senior student in the Frederick County Public Schools Academy for the Fine Arts. De Guzman’s piece and others created by FCPS students will decorate a newly renovated space for the Mental Health Association of Frederick County. Courtesy photo.
Article originally published by Frederick News-Post, May 5, 2021, by Katryna Perera.
 For full article, please visit the Frederick News Post website.

Isolated, alone, lack of motivation. This is some of the verbiage used by Frederick County high school seniors to describe their past year.

As their junior year came to a standstill and their senior year activities were taken away due to COVID-19, many students grappled with their own internal battles.

Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders are among the mental health issues seniors and countless other students of all ages have struggled with as the pandemic has continued.

Shannon Aleshire, CEO of the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Frederick County, said between June 2019 and July 2020, approximately 37 percent of walk-ins to the MHA were 18 years old or younger.

That number has since decreased, but there was a spike in March and April of this year. But it’s not an uncommon spike, said Aleshire.

“A lot of times when people think about individuals who are in crisis or want to hurt themselves, they think it’s around the holidays, but that’s a myth. Really, when suicides spike is in the spring,” she said. “The research says it’s because spring is supposed to be a time of rebirth and hopefulness, and if somebody isn’t feeling that way, then that’s the reason they think it spikes in the springtime.”

This spring has been a painful reminder for many students of how much they’ve missed. Not only have students been completely out of their element for a year, but they’ve missed out on many “firsts” and “onlys,” Aleshire said.

This pandemic is also different than other triggering events, she said.

“I think we keep forgetting that all of us have experienced a collective trauma over the past 13 to 14 months with no end in sight,” Aleshire said. “We’ve all been through or seen on TV natural disasters, but we know a hurricane, tornado or a fire is only going to last so long. We had no idea last March that we’d be having this conversation in April of 2021.”

Many students have found support through friends and local resources, and others have used their passions as coping mechanisms.

Students of the Frederick County Public Schools Academy for the Fine Arts (AFA) have used their love for dance, art and music to help them through the endless days of virtual schooling and social distancing.

To showcase how art can be therapeutic, the MHA recently partnered with the AFA for a spring project. Students in the academy were tasked with creating artwork or videos focused on the theme of “from darkness to light.”

Rebecca Layman, director of development and marketing for MHA, initially came up with the idea. So often, people suffering from mental health issues feel like they’re in a dark place, she said, but when they receive support, it’s like they’ve come out of a tunnel into the light.

The idea of light also follows the theme of MHA’s spring fundraiser event, which focuses on shining a light on mental health. There continues to be a stigma surrounding mental health, Layman said, and many people don’t realize how many resources are available to them.

Layman said she wanted to work with students because their voices seem to have been lost during the pandemic.

“I wanted to get the perspective of young people and what mental health meant to them,” she said. “Throughout this last year, we’ve seen a lot of newspaper articles and TV reporters talking about the effects of [the pandemic] on mental health, but it’s often coming from professionals and parents and business leaders. I really wanted the youth’s perspective.”

The videos that students created will be reviewed by the MHA, and one will be chosen and showcased at the MHA fundraiser. All the artwork will be displayed in MHA’s newly renovated space in downtown Frederick.

Layman said she hopes the students’ involvement will help erase some of the stigmas.

“I think these young people are powerful in what they have to say … so my hope was that they were going to help the community and encourage them by standing up and having the confidence and courage to talk about [mental health],” Layman said.

Jade Smith, a senior in the AFA with a music focus, said she’s felt like time has stopped during the pandemic. She created a video for the MHA project with a few other students, illustrating how the pandemic has deteriorated people’s mental health. She hopes the video will show people that they aren’t alone in their struggles.

Olivia De Guzman focused on a similar idea in her project. De Guzman is a senior in the academy with an art focus. She created a canvas painting of the sky transitioning from dark to light.

“I hope, with this project, people start to see that by talking about [mental health], by having increased awareness of it … we’ll start to see this not as a bad thing, that it’s not a bad thing to struggle with depression or anxiety, it’s just human,” she said.

De Guzman said creating artwork for the MHA partner project helped her reframe her thinking.

“Like a lot of students, I was very frustrated with not being able to experience all the things I would get to with being a senior, but I did start to reflect on the fact that this year being at home did really force me to look at myself and work on myself, heal myself,” she said. “And those are all things I feel I’ve done really well, and it’s allowed me to become a much more vigilant and persevering person despite not knowing what the future looks like.”

Stephanie Weigelt, a dance teacher with the AFA, said projects like this have opened up space for students to express how the past year has impacted them.

“The arts have been a way for a lot of our students to overcome any anxiety that they’ve been feeling during this time,” she said.

Shaylee Chubin, a senior and theater focus in the AFA, said the last year had a great impact on her mental health. Every day, she felt the same, and she lost a lot of motivation. But the project with MHA allowed her to see she was not alone, and she realized there was nothing wrong with what she was feeling.

Chubin hopes her video and others will inspire people to reach out for help when they need it.

“The point of this was to show that there are ways for you to cope with this. I hope people can see that … and hopefully, it will pull them out of that darker place,” she said.