Community Partners Engage Teens on Mental Health with Expressive Arts

The Chill Project at Baldwin High School used traditional Japanese puppetry to combine social-emotional learning with the arts.

In fall 2020, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) awarded thirteen community-based organizations in Allegheny County a total $318,000 in emergency grants to provide emotional support and opportunities for connection for local teens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, JHF has convened a Teen Mental Health Collaborative of the grantees, helping them to collaborate and share their insights. As these partners engaged youth in their communities, several have creatively approached teen mental wellness, using expressive arts programming to provide students with an emotional outlet and mental wellness education.

At Center of Life's KRUNK program, a Hazelwood-based music and health initiative, middle and high school students use the elements of hip-hop through dance, songwriting, beat making, recording engineering, visual art, and equipment management to communicate positive messages about current events and mental health to peers. The program is designed as a "micro-enterprise" production company, as it aims to teach students the skills and professionalism required to succeed in the music industry. Center of Life had been offering this arts programming previously, and the grant from JHF helped to add a mental wellness lens to this work. KRUNK students were provided with coping techniques that helped them to manage their stressors. Center of Life staff educated students on the strategies and allowed them to practice their use. Program staff noted a large change in the emotional wellbeing of their students. In groups, students focused on mutual solutions to resolve disagreements, and they produced high-quality concerts and more compositions than in years past. Students also had increased GPAs and attendance in their virtual learning classrooms, which Center of Life attributes to participation in the KRUNK program.

A+ Schools' TeenBloc program is a collective of 8th-12th grade students in the city of Pittsburgh from varying backgrounds. Through a series of artistic outlets, this program guides students in advocacy and leadership development to help them find and use their voices to ignite changes that will impact their education. With JHF's funding, the TeenBloc program incorporated mental wellness into their ongoing arts programs. This past year, TeenBloc students engaged in quarterly projects to provide them with a creative outlet to support their mental wellness as they navigated their educational experience during a pandemic. In the fall of 2020, students created pieces for a window installation at community arts space BOOM concepts, which explored their personal ancestral connections, concerns for the world we live in, and how their voices are frequently dismissed due to age. Over winter 2020-21, students created a three-part podcast series with the YMCA Lighthouse Project, in which they discussed topics such as the future of education and social media through the lens of Afrofuturism. In the spring of 2021, TeenBloc organized a social media feature called "TBH (To Be Honest)" as a visually expressive tool for students to share their experiences of online remote learning and their needs. Currently, students are working to create a vlog that tells the story of Perry High School, expanding upon the data in A+ Schools' 2020 Report to the Community.

Allegheny Health Network's The Chill Project at Baldwin High School used traditional Japanese Bunraku puppetry to combine social-emotional learning and the arts, in collaboration with artists-in-residence and puppet artists Matt and Deana Acheson. Puppeteers collaborate to maneuver the puppets and produce life-like actions and emotional scenarios, as a means of emotional expression and teamwork. High school students participated in sessions to learn evidence-based coping skills (especially mindfulness), and to learn how to use the puppets. The program took a non-traditional approach that could reach students who have a language barrier or for whom English is their second language. After teachers expressed interest in the program, The Chill Project is currently engaging students in the summer extended school year program and providing services to 19 English language learner students during the summer.

In addition, partners The Second Floor at the JCC, the Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh, the Center of Life, along with the 10.27 Healing Partnership, are hosting the Connect and Create: A Collaborative Teen Art Exhibit on September 12, from 7-8:30 pm at the JCC Robinson Building. More information is available here

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