How after-school art programs can change the mental health landscape

Students working on art projects after school at the Webutuck Art Club.

Natalia Zukerman

How after-school art programs can change the mental health landscape

DUTCHESS COUNTY — Addressing the mental well-being of students has become a priority for schools across the country, and the Webutuck and Millbrook school districts are no exception.

Social worker Jamie Betti, who provides supplemental support throughout Webutuck Central School District, noted that her “position was created out of an increased need for mental health support” across the district.

There was an increase in referrals on the heels of COVID-19, she said. “There were a lot of kids who now had anxiety not just about getting sick, but about coming back to school and what that would look like.”

Educators and social workers in the schools — each of the schools at Webutuck has its own dedicated social worker — are also concerned with excessive screen time and online bullying, said Betti and Tara Hart, the social worker at Eugene Brooks Intermediate School (EBIS), underscoring the impact of social media on students’ mental health.

“You know, in one minute, somebody can post something embarrassing or negative about you, and it spreads to the masses,” Betti explained. “The fact that if somebody has an ill thought about you — it’s just so easy for them to post it. It’s crushing these kids’ worlds.”

Betti added, “There’s also more exposure to big, stressful things that kids can’t really developmentally wrap their heads around.”

Faced with these new challenges, Webutuck offers its students a robust array of services including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention and follow-up, support groups and clubs, consultations, collaboration with educational teams, and an assembly program that has brought in speakers from the North East Community Center, National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mountainside Treatment Center (North Canaan), to do segments on topics including domestic violence prevention, on substance abuse prevention and internet safety education.

Lauren Marquis, director of curriculum/instruction and technology at Webutuck, has also come to see the integration of art programs into the curriculum as a potential avenue for promoting mental wellness.

“It’s been a hard couple of years,” said Jillian Barnes, who has taught art at Millbrook Middle School for the past 14 years.

The isolation of the pandemic is still affecting students, she said. She noted a surge in participation in after-school programs, particularly the art club, following COVID-19: students had “really missed being with their peers,” she said.

After-school and curricular programing addressing mental health concerns are proving to be valuable resources for promoting mindfulness, creativity, emotional expression and overall student health.

“The last two years are the highest [enrollment] numbers that I’ve ever had. The high school is the same,” she said.

Pine Plains Central School District could not be reached during the reporting of this story.

Barnes’s own background is in graphic design, but she has found that, “during the time when we were all on the computer so much during COVID, everyone just wanted a break,” so she’s pivoted to using clay, a tactile medium, in her classes.

She said, “If anyone is ever stressed or just needs some relaxation, sitting on a pottery wheel is literally one of the best therapies there is.”

Her art club still has an element of graphic design, but the focus has shifted to be more hands-on, and Barnes shared that she can tell how much the students are loving it. “I have to kick them out of here sometimes to go to their next class,” she said.

The support she has received from the Millbrook Educational Foundation is instrumental in enhancing the art program, said Barnes.

“They’ve supported me with film equipment, display boards for art shows, an awesome new printer,” she said. “I’ve been here a long time, so I’ve written a lot of grant proposals for pretty much anything that’s outside of your normal budget.”

This year, Webutuck’s after-school art club started meeting again for the first time since the pandemic.

“A big reason for starting up the art club again was mindfulness, mental health,” said Craig Wickwire, who teaches art and leads the club. “Just being able to have the kids come to a safe, fun place to rest, create, and flush off some of that negativity they pick up during the day.”

Wickwire has also been able to secure grants in the past two years from the Webutuck Quest for Excellence Fund through the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, enabling him to offer students a wider variety of materials.

The art club is open to students in the seventh through 12th grades and is particularly appealing to students who may not be able to fit art into their regular curriculum.

“We can do in here what I might not be able to get done during the year,” said Wickwire, “so it kind of opens up the breadth of materials and techniques for the students.”

While Art Club isn’t normally open to sixth graders, Fiona Crow has shown remarkable talent, and Wickwire made an exception.

“Art Club to me is my safe place,” said Crow. “I’m proud to say that as the youngest person in here.

“I think it’s just really nice to be able to have a place where you can let your imagination go free and let your inner child basically run around. Art means everything to me.”

Crow shared her most recent animation, created on her iPad, and said: “It took me two years to save up $600 for it. I did a bunch of babysitting and dog-walking.”

Asked if the art program on her iPad is keeping her off of scrolling through social media, Crow said, “I’m not allowed on social media. What I do on my iPad is just draw.”

Twelfth grader Arionna Parent said that the art club “is kind of like a safe space. You can just come in here and do whatever you want basically, paint whatever you want. There’s so much to do.”

Currently working on a mixed media painting, she shared how her emotions affect her process.

“How you feel when you’re doing it, it kind of determines my art, like what I’m doing at that moment or how I feel. But right now, I think it’s calm, you know? Peaceful.”

This article has been updated to correct the name of Craig Wickwire.

Social workers Jamie Betti, left, and Tara Hart at Webutuck.Natalia Zukerman

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