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School of the Art Institute students to show how art combats loneliness on 'Today' show

Chicago Tribune - 4/24/2018

April 24--Beginning college can be a difficult experience. It's the first time many teenagers start living on their own. Some are nervous about making new friends and adjusting to new spaces.

Nearly 1 in 5 university students report experiencing anxiety or depression. To help students, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, mental health professionals are zeroing in on a word they say people are using more -- loneliness.

The school's Wellness Center, on the 13th floor at 116 S. Michigan Ave., provides students access to medical, mental health, disability, learning and health education professionals. It also encourages artwork as a type of therapy.

Students from the Wellness Center are scheduled to be on the "Today" show Tuesday. The segment will focus on the loneliness epidemic.

An exhibit called "With / in" focuses on compassion and loneliness. One interactive piece uses a plastic pillow that inflates to help steady breathing; another student experimented wearing a boot with a plant growing inside it, weighing what compassion one can show an object.

For the "Today" segment, said Wellness Center Executive Director Joseph Behen, students were asked to think of someone they wanted to support and create art for that person.

"Magic then happened," said Behen, who has been at the school, which received a $300,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for two decades. "It was playful and joyful, and that just speaks to the power of the arts to connect people, to bring them together."

Through trying to help students feeling anxious or depressed, they found that they often experienced a lack of belonging. And belonging, Behen notes, correlates with loneliness.

"We're more inclined to talk about things like belonging, or connection," he said. "We're in a moment I think right now where people are feeling like they can talk more about loneliness."

He pointed to Cornell University student Emery Bergmann's video that went viral detailing her struggle with making friends and adjusting to college.

In Chicago, students embraced chances to better understand mental health and administer aid. Behen said when the school sent out an email offering Mental Health First Aid, a course that teaches risk factors and warning signs as well as offers resources, 80 students signed up the first day.

The students who did the training also meet every other week for dinner. Another biweekly support group has formed for students with disabilities and allies.

"What we're trying to do is really activate those natural strivings for connection that people feel on a college campus," he said.

In February, someone from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a nonprofit started at Google, gave a two-hour training. They are also hosting a two-day conference in May to teach self-awareness and resilience tools.

Art is, after all, a way to connect.

"So much artmaking is about bringing people together, collaborating and making something meaningful that connects the artist to an audience, and the audience to each other, and those people to their worlds more deeply," he said.

abowen@chicagotribune.com

If art can't fix problems, what good is it? »Artwork on gun violence can't keep up with Chicago's shootings »Blazing a trail in art therapy, pioneer benefits from its healing power too »

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