Positive Painting Project promotes teen mental health

Shaler+Area+students+participate+in+the+Positive+Painting+project+in+the+LIGHT+room.+

Catlyn DiPasquale

Shaler Area students participate in the Positive Painting project in the LIGHT room.

By Alyssa Hillwig, Shaler Area High School

In association with the Positive Painting Project, the LIGHT Education Initiative hosted an all-day painting session in the LIGHT classroom on Thursday, January 6. A project that aims to encourage positive mental health practices with creativity and art, its very emotional backstory and important message allow the project to create and sustain an impact so far beyond its humble origins.

People always seemed to gravitate to Katie Whysong, a passionate young woman and student at Fox Chapel who had immense artistic ability and big ambitions. Although she had always been described as a sweet and quiet girl, she never shied away from using her voice to support marginalized groups on campus, especially the LGBTQ+ community, and to encourage the people around her to never fear reaching out for help for feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

On March 10, 2021, Katie lost her own battle with depression, but her presence in her school and the community did not fade after the tragic loss. Her strong spirit continues to brighten up the hallways and bathrooms that hold the paintings created in her honor through the Positive Painting Project.

Katie’s parents, Todd and Alisa Whysong, worked with her art teachers to memorialize their daughter in a way that would reflect her ambitions. For the Positive Painting Project, students are encouraged to create their own colorful designs and paint them onto canvases, where positive messages would then be screenprinted onto them. They are then installed in the school restrooms, a common place for children to seek privacy when they are upset, to provide an extra layer of support for students in need.

“The whole idea is to de-stigmatize mental health and begin to have more conversations about it with teens,” Todd Whysong said.

The LIGHT center at SAHS took up this opportunity, as teachers Mr. Nick Haberman and Mrs. Catlyn DiPasquale felt that a student-created project like this was a great opportunity to allow students to decompress while contributing to something much bigger.

“We as LIGHT chose to pioneer this because [LIGHT] started as a way to preach remembrance about the Holocaust, but now it has grown to be representative and supporting of so many communities, the LGBTQ+ as well as a those battling against racism, sexism, the mental health stigma, and more. We’re extremely happy to use programs like this to support that,” Mrs. DiPasquale said. “I hope that it provides students with a good outlet to just kind of express themselves or get a break from the stress of finals and midterms, but it will also hopefully beautify the school and create more awareness around mental health.”

By asking students to sign their names and graduation years on the backs of their paintings, she also hopes that it will create a sustained message of positivity throughout the school for years to come.

“I love that it’s completely student created and it will be a lasting feeling of happiness around the school, since we asked students to put their names and graduation year on them so if we continue to do this, we can hand some of the paintings down and interchange them in the future,” Mrs. DiPasquale said.

Originally, the teachers associated with the LIGHT Center had no idea what the turnout for this event would be, but were extremely surprised with the turnout and how many people came to create a painting—over 120 students and 10 teachers came to participate throughout the day.

“At first I bought a total of probably 50 canvases, but then I panicked and worried that it might not be enough so I bought 30 more. Now, it’s fifth period and I just sent Mrs. Piekarski to buy more canvases, so I would say it’s been pretty successful,” Mrs. DiPasquale said during the event. “I think it’s because this gives students something freeing and enjoyable and mindless to do, and it also definitely adds an extra bit of importance when they really know the goal they are working towards.”

With social media and the way things are now, I don’t think it’s ever been harder to be a teenager and it’s never been easier to find reasons to feel bad about yourself online. Help is always available so it’s most important to say something so they know they’re not alone.”

— Todd Whysong

Not only did this surprise the coordinators, but Katie’s father was humbled when he saw the turnout, as he knows his daughter would be so happy to see so many people working to break down the mental health stigma and spread positivity.

“I didn’t know what the interest for an outside project like this would look like, but the turnout makes me feel so humbled and happy,” Whysong said. “It’s a message that has resonated with a lot of people and I hope people find it helpful within and beyond my own community.”

With the pressure of the internet, school, and other factors pushing down on teenagers today, Whysong hopes to spread the message that nobody is ever truly alone and help is right around the corner.

“More than ever before, teens need to be reminded that it’s okay to not be okay and that it’s important to talk about your mental health in the same way you would talk about a physical illness,” Whysong said. “With social media and the way things are now, I don’t think it’s ever been harder to be a teenager and it’s never been easier to find reasons to feel bad about yourself online. Help is always available so it’s most important to say something so they know they’re not alone.”

To learn more about the Positive Paint Project, visit paintpositive.org.

This story was originally published on The Oracle on January 24, 2022.