Student-designed billboards promote wellness

Artwork submitted to Times Observer A billboard based on this Mental Health Awareness Month themed work by Tristan Coccaro of Youngsville High School will be located at the entrance to Sheffield High School.

The past year has been a difficult one in terms of mental health.

The number of mental health issues has increased during the pandemic, and COVID-19 has made it more difficult for those individuals and organizations — including CORE (Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences) — that work to combat those issues to do their jobs effectively.

“Suicide attempts and completions have drastically risen over the past year as well as the number of those struggling with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues,” CORE

Founder Kari Swanson said. “The pandemic made in-person counseling visits cease and telehealth replaced this which is very difficult on people.”

She said opening up to an unfamiliar person via telephone or Zoom is not comfortable for those struggling with isolation, depression, and anxiety.

In some cases, CORE has been able to help with that situation. “CORE has been able to provide several individuals and families with in-person home visits, following CDC protocols, to address significant losses, depression and other mental health crises,” Swanson said.

Artwork submitted to Times Observer A billboard based on this Mental Health Awareness Month themed work by Elizabeth Kays of Youngsville High School will be located on Route 6 near Warren County Christian School in Brokenstraw Township.

“One of the biggest challenges presented by the pandemic was that of isolation and how we, human beings, truly are social creatures,” Swanson said. “The absence of touch, being with friends and family, has brought out anxiety and depression in people who do not have a history of mental health experiences prior to the pandemic.”

“This, then, has created fear and anxiety by these people who are experiencing feelings that are truly foreign to them and they begin to think that something is ‘wrong’ with them,” she said. “The absence of ‘fun’ – going to concerts, vacations, sporting events and engaging in sporting events – took a toll on many people who, having been busy, all of a sudden found themselves idle and not sure what to do.”

Those feelings are not unique. Many people are going through them. There are people who can help.

“Another challenge during the pandemic has been for teachers, students and families regarding in-person and at-home learning, quarantining and all the protocols that have been put in place to keep people safe,” she said. “This can be said for all the nurses, healthcare and mental health staff who saw huge numbers of people experiencing crises.”

“Fear became a big emotion for people who may not experience fear often,” Swanson said. “Fear of the illness, fear of things shutting down, fear of things staying open, fear of touching things, fear of going out, fear of being around others, fear of getting the shot, fear of not getting the shot, and the list goes on.”

Artwork submitted to Times Observer A billboard based on this Mental Health Awareness Month themed work by Karson Lyon of Sheffield High School (featuring the detail of a semicolon teardrop, instead of a period, indicating that it is not the end of the story) will be located at the Glade Bridge at the east end of Warren.

CORE is working to help raise awareness in the schools, with the book ‘Right Now, I’m Fine’ provided to all students in kindergarten through second grades and school counselors, a two-day webinar – ‘Managing Mental Health in Uncertain Times’ – for district personnel, and efforts that encourage students to be open about how they feel.

COVID-19 has struck at the ability of organizations to hold events.

“The pandemic has made it difficult for CORE to do its regular fundraising and awareness events over the past year such as the Suicide Prevention Walk at War Memorial Field last September and a golf tournament last summer,” Swanson said. “Although these have been silenced by the pandemic, the rates for suicide and mental health issues have not. Fund-raising activities and business/individual donations are the only way that CORE is able to provide resources and information to the community including the billboards every May and September,”

Anyone interested in helping the organization may reach out to Swanson at bkswanson@atlanticbb.net. Checks to CORE may be sent through First United Methodist Church, 200 Market St., Warren.

In September — Suicide Prevention Month — CORE designed and posted billboards throughout Warren County.

The billboards for May — Mental Health Awareness Month — have been designed by students.

“CORE, along with the Warren County School District, offered an art contest for students in grades 9 through 12 to enter to have their design picked to go on one of six billboards in Warren County for the month of May,” Swanson said. “Students were encouraged to make an art display to promote mental health and/or send a message to those struggling with mental health issues.”

“CORE purchased the billboards and worked with the students, their art teachers and Lamar, the billboard company, in getting these designs ready to be displayed,” she said.

There were 17 entries in the contest, up from five in 2020.

“We have amazing artistic talent that is underappreciated and does not get seen very often from our students in this area,” Swanson said. “This was a way to showcase the talent as well as tackle a major subject through the eyes of our youth. We adults can learn a lot from our young people by seeing how they view subjects and how they respond to adversity and difficult situations.”

Members of the community picked the six works that will be posted, but “all 17 will be displayed in downtown Warren, beginning Saturday, May 1, in the storefront windows of McKissock, Total Evolution and the old Phase 2 building,” Swanson said. “The artwork will remain downtown for the month of May for people to view and to bring hope to those needing to be encouraged in their mental health process.”

“Personally, I was so moved by all of the entries we got, I wished CORE could put them all on billboards,” she said. “Seeing what messages these students wanted to tell their community was inspiring and I so hope it helps someone to get help during these tough times and know that they are not alone in their community.”

“Talking to some of the artists I was able to tell that this was a great experience for them in trying to help others who are having difficult times,” Swanson said. “I think it gave them pride knowing that their gift of art could possibly save a life by providing a message of hope.”

“CORE’s message continues to be ‘be open about your experiences’ regarding mental health and feelings of suicide,” she said. “Our town has had a number of our community members die by suicide and it has been devastating.”

“CORE wants to continue to increase the ease of talking about mental health as comfortably as we talk about physical health,” she said. “CORE wants to put mental health out in the open so that all the who live here know that getting help is not something to ever be ashamed of, especially now, during one of the most difficult times most of us have had to live through, the pandemic.”


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