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Pasco students create art to shed light on mental health

TRINITY — Goldfish caught in a swirling globe of water, a solitary figure sitting on a barren hill, a silhouette of a girl basking in a golden sunset while swinging from a tree. Mascara tears.

That was a sample of paintings, drawings and mixed media pieces submitted by students in the Mitchell High Art Club "Raising Mental Health Awareness" art exhibit and contest held at Growth & Recovery Counseling Center on Mitchell Boulevard.

Of 50 pieces submitted, judges selected five to be professionally framed and hung on a hallway wall until the end of the school year.

The artists chosen were: Katie Tew for her piece entitled, "Many Beauties"; Michael Wilkins for a surrealist painting called, "Distortion"; Ashley Williams for "Free Mind"; Nia Wyre for "Roses"; and Anastasiya Zagonenko for the swirling goldfish piece called, "Incandescent Flow."

"I’m so honored," Zagonenko said.

The contest was a reciprocal kind of outreach, said owner Joy Davis, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating eating disorders. She’s also the mom of a Mitchell High student and art club member.

The artwork might provide comfort to patients, Davis figured, while engaging teenagers in a conversation about mental health.

Davis reached out to Mitchell High art teacher and club sponsor, Donna Fulton. She was quickly on board.

"Part of the mission of the art club is to reach to the community," said Fulton. Past projects have included painting murals for the SPCA and the West Pasco Habitat for Humanity Restore in New Port Richey.

Davis posted signs with facts about teen depression along with the students’ artwork.

"We were floored with some of the pieces submitted," she said. "There were some pretty potent pieces — raw."

"I was very, very impressed with the way the kids engaged with the subject. They really did seize the topic," said Marcia Fulvi, a volunteer with the Hernando chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, who served as a judge.

It’s hard to be a teenager today, said Davis. According to the American Foundation on Suicide Prevention, only about one of three adolescents who suffer from depression gets help.

"Kids are anxious about all sorts of things — getting good grades, getting into a good college, picking a career study track and being booked into extracurricular activities — sports, dance, SAT prep class," Davis said

Add to that a fear that swells in the wake of the February 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

The day after the Parkland shooting, a prank fire alarm was pulled at Mitchell High

"We were pretty shaken," said art club member Monique McKinney. "No one knew what to do. It’s so sad that we have to wait for an announcement over the loud speaker to tell us it’s safe to evacuate."

That hit close to home, Davis said, noting her own daughter’s angst about the incident.

"It’s so sad that our kids are not able to feel safe and secure at school. They are walking the hallways. They see things. Hear things. They need to know who to take it to, and they need to take it seriously," she said.

As a parent, Davis is relieved the discussion is happening in area schools about how to make campuses more safe.

"My hope is that the schools see events such as these and the administrations renew dedication to the early recognition of students in distress and prepare to connect them to the appropriate mental health resources," she said, "either inside their doors or within the community — before things reach such traumatic proportions."

She has concerns that simplistic attitudes toward mental illness might prevent people from seeking care.

"Not everyone who is depressed or has mental health issues is dangerous," she said. "My experience has been that, also very sadly, those struggling with an emotional illness are far more likely to harm themselves than someone else."

Those who seek therapy can benefit from a variety of tools, Davis said. Among them, cultivating more compassionate and kind self-talk, recognizing signs of stress overload, setting more realistic and manageable goals and expectations, journaling exercises and the use of meditation, mindfulness, yoga and prayer.

Mitchell art club member Ashley Williams, 17, was delighted to see her artwork professionally framed and pleased to spread the message that it’s okay to seek help.

"I think mental health issues are a problem," Williams said. "I have some friends that struggle with different things."

Sometimes teenagers aren’t equipped to handle those struggles, said Michael Wilkins, 17. "I think it’s important for people to be able express their feelings toward mental illness and realize that they’re not alone."

Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52

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