DOVER – A bright yellow mural of the words ‘You are not alone’ is now prominently displayed in the entrance hall of the town’s high school. These words are now the first and last thing students see as they walk through the front doors – a subtle reminder that despite whatever mental health issues they faced that day, they are supported.
Students from Dover High School’s Mental Health Initiative share mental health awareness through art, having partnered with local artists to paint the mural and local organizations to present an art exhibit about mental health entitled The 99 Faces Project in the halls of their school.
The 99 Faces project, by artist Lynda Cutrell, is a series of canvas artworks and portraits of people with mental illnesses. The 99 portraits include “33 people with bipolar disorder, 33 people with schizophrenia and 33 people who love them”. It starts in the main hallway that leads to the library and beyond.
The exhibit was made possible through a collaboration between the Dover School District, Dover High School, DHS Student Mental Health Initiative, the Rotary Club of Dover and the Dover Mental Health Alliance.
The students formed a mental health initiative this school year, initiated by student leaders eager to change the culture at DHS around mental health and suicide awareness. DHS senior class members were motivated to take action after losing three classmates to suicide. Many of these students went through mental health first aid training and began to train more students at all grade levels.
Ashley Holt Caron, 16, a DHS junior, is a member of the school’s Mental Health Initiative and trained in NAMI-NH’s Mental Health First Aid training.
Caron said the students added their own personal touches to the mural, including words that bring positivity and add to the message of “you are not alone”.
“The community dealt with the great loss of André Shaeffer at the end of last year,” said Holt Caron. “I’m not in the senior class, but the senior class suffered so many losses.”
Suzanne Weete, one of the founders of the Dover Mental Health Alliance, said DMHA’s missions and student initiative align with promoting mental health education, awareness, eliminating stigma and suicide prevention.
“We strive to create a culture that understands, embraces and addresses the complexities of mental health,” Weete said. “Schools cannot help these children alone. It takes a community. We need to start involving young people in these conversations because they have a voice, they know what needs to change.
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A reception was held for the opening night of the 99 Faces exhibit on Wednesday evening. Cutrell and John Broderick, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire and current Senior Director of Community Affairs for Dartmouth Health, spoke to the community about children diagnosed with mental illness. The trip led them to become advocates for mental health education.
Broderick travels around New England speaking to school groups about mental health. He remembers a lecture he gave where he had an unexpected encounter with a student. A football player told Broderick after hearing his speech that he was struggling. Broderick asked him if he had told his parents, and the student said he felt he couldn’t. He remembers asking the student if he could tell them about a broken ankle that prevented him from playing. Broderick said the student answered “Yes” and he clarified that a mental health issue that prevents you from living is no different than a physical injury.
“In the world I grew up in, nobody ever talked about mental health,” Broderick said. “We can all do more.”
When Cutrell’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the 99 Faces artist found herself navigating uncharted waters as she struggled to get him the help he needed. She has spent 15 years creating works that show both the science and psychology of mental health, such as her way of changing dialogue.
“When someone has bipolar disease, there’s nothing you can do behaviorally to change what’s going on in the cells,” Cutrell said. “The science behind mental health brings us to a different understanding of where everyone fits on the spectrum of things. The student initiatives I see happening here now that discuss mental health are giant leaps from what we were 15 years ago when I started this project.”
Students lead the charge
In addition to mental health awareness training, Mental Health Initiative students are also working on a curriculum to bring to middle school and elementary schools. The program would be different to be age appropriate. Middle school students would learn more about the signs of depression and mental health issues, but both programs would ultimately focus on understanding emotions and their impact on students.
“If you learn from an early age to better regulate your emotions and identify them, it leads to healthier coping skills,” Holt Caron said.
Steve Pappajohn, Dover Police Department Youth Services Coordinator and Managing Member of the Dover Mental Health Alliance, helped the students secure funding for the mural. As director of the teen center, he had tried to find a way to connect with Dover teens about mental health, but didn’t know the best avenue to reach them. When the Mental Health Initiative went live, he was eager to be a part of it.
“A group of students went to the administration and asked for a voice and they got it,” Pappajohn said. “It’s not just a mental health initiative, it’s a mental health movement. These children have a voice. For too long adults have dictated how things should be. They have a lot of ideas about how things should be done and how to change the culture around mental health in schools and in their lives.