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A few dozen Colorado students created art, seen in this exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, to reflect their struggles with mental health as part of a statewide art competition organized by Denver teens and members of this year’s Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Denver program. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The deep colors and gray shadows illuminate the pain that teens like Reina Kushihashi often suffer in silence with shape and imagery.

And with beauty, even.

Art, Reina said, helps “give form to things like feelings which are really vague sometimes and difficult to process.”

The 17-year-old Denver student is one of 35 young artists from across Colorado who have put paint, ink, watercolor, pen and other materials to canvas to bring the outside world into the mental health challenges that often cast streaks of self-doubt, depression, anxiety and loneliness over them. Together, their artworks explore what it means to be a teenager at a time so many feel inundated by pressures to earn top grades, decide what they want to do with their careers, cope with poverty and uncertainty at home, and find normalcy again after a global pandemic upended all sense of stability. Through their art, the dozens of artists hope adults will see them and their struggles.

And start to listen.

Denver students Emma Nicotra and Battsetsen “Batt” Erdenebulgan organized the exhibit, which doubles as an art competition, for Colorado students as a way to shine a brighter spotlight on the widespread mental health struggles overwhelming them and their peers. The exhibit debuts Friday night during the Youth Mental Health Awareness Art Contest at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Denver.

Denver students, Battsetsen “Batt” Erdenebulgan, left, and Emma Nicotra, organized a statewide art competition for young artists centered on teens’ mental health. Both Batt and Emma have researched the best ways schools can help students battling mental health struggles, particularly after the pandemic spurred a mental health crisis among students. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Both Emma, 17, and Batt, 16, are members of the Colorado Youth Congress, a statewide organization that empowers students to drive change in their schools and communities, through which they have each amplified their own voices in student-led conversations and a campaign focused on kids’ mental health

“I think it’s really important to raise youth voices in discussions about youth mental health because youth are directly affected by it and they can directly speak on their experiences,” said Emma, a senior at Regis Jesuit High School, adding that it gives a “personal connection” to the work that schools and mental health professionals are leading.

The teens say there is still so much more students need to share with the adults making decisions about how to best help them trying to overcome mental health pitfalls. The need for their input has only become more urgent since the pandemic, when Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “pediatric mental health state of emergency.”

Batt, a senior at Denver School of the Arts, has seen that crisis grip students’ lives, including friends and classmates who have attempted suicide, some who have hurt themselves and some who have had to seek treatment in a hospital.

“Sometimes those people who are having a hard time with their mental health, they don’t feel safe talking to counselors or adults in their life because they feel they would be seen in a different light or it will come back on them,” she said. “At times I felt like I wanted to help, but I wasn’t capable.”

Batt also lived through her own mental health anguish during the pandemic, when her family members, including her mom, all got sick with COVID and she had to step up as their caretaker.

Reina, a senior at Denver School of the Arts who is also part of Colorado Youth Congress, has long struggled with mental health and turned to art to feel her way through it.

During the pandemic, she fell into depression after being isolated. But she also found it hard to return to school after being alone for so long.

“Suddenly being inundated with all this social interaction was really difficult for me,” said Reina, who struggles with social anxiety, self-harm and premenstrual dysphoric disorder — an extreme form of premenstrual syndrome that induces significant mood shift before a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Artist Reina Kushihashi, 17, a senior at Denver School of the Arts Artis Reina Kushihashi, is one of 35 young artists who submitted artwork to a statewide art competition focused on broadening awareness of the importance of teen mental health. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Therapy has helped her regain her footing along with the hours she focuses inward while experimenting with her paints and canvases.

Struggles similar to Reina’s have reverberated across schools for many students as the pandemic stirred up anxiety among kids upon returning to class, where they found “a disconnect” between what they expected school would be like and what they actually experienced, said Chad Cookinham, director of the corporate work study program at Denver’s Arrupe Jesuit High School who has spent his entire career in high schools. Cookinham is part of this year’s Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Denver program. He and other members of the annual program collaborated with students on the art exhibition and competition.

Schools don’t consult students enough as they try to help kids navigate mental health challenges, Cookinham said. But he sees that slowly changing.

“We tend to underask the youth who are the ones who actually know how things are going,” Cookinham said. “They’re the ones that are in the classrooms every day. They know how it’s going. They are more sophisticated than folks typically give them credit for. They know what they need. They know what will help. And somehow we still don’t always listen (to them). I do think that we’re starting to get better.”

Beauty within the hardship

With mental health challenges escalating all around them, Batt and Emma have joined peers and mental health organizations in researching ways schools could more effectively help students through their lows, including by adding kids’ voices to conversations about school policies, prioritizing counseling staff to support students and developing spaces where students can talk to each other about how their identity affects the ways they experience the world.

That’s the kind of space teens have created in a corner of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a collage of student artwork decorates a vibrant green wall, each picture and portrait accompanied by a description of the intricate ways the art depicts personal battles with mental health. Other teens’ projects will be displayed through a digital slideshow. 

One student’s composition depicts their bedroom, an orange bed in one corner and a bold blue wall splashed with chaotic designs in white — a reflection of their own chronic stress.

“As you look at my piece, I encourage you to feel slightly overwhelmed,” the artist writes in a description of the work. “This will allow you to step into my shoes as well as the shoes of millions of teenagers who are expected to have found their ultimate, unwavering life’s purpose. Something that adults like to do is tell us that the world is in the hands of the youth; it is our responsibility to fix it.”

Other students’ submissions use artistry to delve into some of their darkest moments. One teen’s artwork illustrates a graphic cycle of depression from their past, with two figures representing the same person at different stages of their life. The older version acts a guardian angel, helping the younger version of the person who is close to collapsing on the floor in the midst of hurting their arm. Nearby is a wall of bandages.

“I chose to incorporate a wall of (Band-Aids) because I wanted to represent how society always tells us to fix ourselves (like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound) but never really takes mental health issues seriously,” the artist explains in their description.

The artwork at Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver range from illustrations depicting how overwhelmed teens are to other pieces focused on specific mental health issues, such as depression and an eating disorder. This special exhibit will run until Dec. 10 at the museum. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Batt and Emma have worked since May to organize the art competition, and despite their efforts, Batt has wondered at times whether they’re doing enough to spark change. But as they’ve combed through submissions and read about experiences student artists have never opened up about to anyone else, she has set her doubts aside.

“I used to think that unless I’m going to be in the rooms where these conversations about laws are happening, then I’m not making enough change,” she said. “Us having a way to appreciate (students) and their art and their experiences, I think that shows how powerful us telling our stories and hearing other stories are at making them feel less lonely and making mental health feel more normalized.”

She hopes that students learn to spot the beauty within their hardships.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver houses a special exhibit of artwork created by young artists depicting their struggles with mental health until Dec. 10. (Chloe Anderson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It can be seen in the arts, in all that they do as an outlet to the world,” Batt said. “And I want them to know that their experiences and opinions have (an) effect on the people around them and (they) are capable of making change.”

The Youth Mental Health Awareness Art Contest runs Friday from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art, located at 1485 Delgany St. in Denver. Admission is free for attendees under 19 and costs $12 for anyone 19 and older (which covers the cost of a museum ticket). The event will celebrate young artists, including by awarding one a cash prize of $500, and will feature live music as well as talks by mental health services provider WellPower. Click here for more information.

The exhibit will be on display at the museum until Dec. 10.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...