Berkshires art therapist awarded at Statehouse for work in youth suicide prevention

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Jenn Smith — The Berkshire Eagle
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PITTSFIELD — Clearing a cloudy mind, healing a heavy heart and calming an angry voice can be both messy and colorful work. So why not work it out in the art studio?

In the mind of local artist and art therapist Marney Schorr, and in a growing body of research and evidence, art studios — with thoughtful instructions and structure — can offer a safe haven for freedom of expression through paint and clay versus fists and fear. There are no clinician's clipboards or couches in the art studio, just chairs, canvases and an open invitation to find creative release.

"It works because it's not a classroom and it's not an office," Schorr said.

It also seems to work because of its multipronged approach. In addition to the students' willingness to be there, the program requires parental or guardian consent and involvement, and also requires that youths have a formal therapy plan or clinical treatment program.

Schorr was among a group of nine recipients of a Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention "Leadership in Suicide Prevention" award. Schorr, who went to the Statehouse on March 12 to accept the award, said it "felt amazing" to be recognized and applauded by a mix of legislators, members of law enforcement, suicide survivors and community advocates for the work she does with teens and young adults in this small corner of Western Massachusetts.

"People don't get awards for recovery," she said. "But these youths should be praised and rewarded. No one's making them come here. They're doing the work."

A year of turnaround

Schorr piloted the Arts in Recovery for Youth initiative last June with support from the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention and individual donations. The free, 12-week program is designed for people ages 13 to 24 who struggle with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, or who have survived a suicide attempt.

There are seven young women and men currently involved in Arts in Recovery for Youth, which they refer to as AIRY. Some of them are also involved in Barrington Stage Company's Playwright Mentoring Project, which encourages young people to channel their life experiences and challenges in a creative way.

Schorr's program has been so successful in teaching young people skills and creative ways to cope, that the youth themselves will present an Arts in Recovery for Youth Workshop on May 2 at the annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference in Framingham. Schorr has subsequently begun teaching workshops for other youth advocates interested in replicating this program in other parts of the state.

The young artists' work will also be exhibited as part of the May First Fridays Artswalk and ArtWeek in Pittsfield, which kicks off May 4. The Arts in Recovery for Youth display will be shown in Studio 12 at NUarts Studios and Gallery, 11 North St.

Peggy Morse, a longtime leader with the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, helped nominate Schorr for her award.

"It's so heartwarming to see these lives being impacted in such a personal way," she said. "They're struggling and they're not cured of suicidal ideation, but now they have really concrete skills for developing coping mechanisms and they have such strong support base through this program."

Schorr said the true benefit of the program is less about the finished product and more about the process.

"The nature of artmaking accesses a different part of the brain. It shows that there are effective skills out there for suicide prevention to be learned, so we teach them the skills," she said. "There is buy-in in this room, and the youth are seeing this space as essential to their recovery."

Her work is her healing

For Schorr, finding her stride in this work is also what keeps her going.

There was a time where she struggled with her own suicidal thoughts and depression, and felt it was hard to see a future. Eventually she found a sense of grounding with her work in art and recovery learning communities that provide peer support and resources. Recovery learning communities are consumer-run networks of self-help/peer support, information and referral, advocacy and training activities.

Schorr went on to earn her master's degree in clinical art therapy at Long Island University on top of her bachelor's degree in visual art at Empire State College. She's spent the past decade studying and teaching in the arts therapy field and has taught courses with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College and at Empire State College, and has been an art therapy internship supervisor at Springfield College.

"My work is part of my mental health," Schorr says. "It keeps me driven because I see it working. ... There is so much hope in this work."

She said the work is "also a response to a community need."

The 13- to 24-year-old population she works with has been identified by the state Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program as being imminently at-risk for suicide and in need of additional support. According to national data, sui-cide is the second lead-ing cause of death for youth ages 15 to 24. For every sui-cide death, it is esti-mated that there are about 147 people exposed and 18 who are intimately affected by the suicide death.

Schorr is now seeking to secure grants to expand the Arts in Recovery for Youth program to Northern and Southern Berkshire County, and to also start a support group for parents and guardians.

The therapy part of the arts program uses a specific curriculum, which requires active participation, including a weekly self-report from students based on the use of new interpersonal and self-regulating skills.

Schorr also integrates dialectical behavior therapy, an approach designed to give a person skills to become more resilient in adverse circumstances and more tempered in dealing with abrasive relationships. This can include techniques like meditation, breathing regulation, and illustrating personal narrative storyboards to help discover how a person is thinking and feeling.

Schorr's current students have taken the latter skills and used them to create a "graphic novella" on how to address negative feelings. On facing pages, one page represents a student's struggle through imagery and perhaps a few words. The opposite page is illustrated by another student offering helpful advice. For example, to the student who drew an "anxiety monster," another drew a reminder to keep calm and count to 10.

Another popular activity is the use of masks. The youths are able to, through paint, glitter, yarn and other media, create their best "warrior" face with which they can face the world. One young woman painted hers with a spiritual third-eye of mindfulness. Another put lines and coils of wires on the inside of his mask, to represent internal struggle. The face of the mask was still red and black, but less restricted.

By finding what represents them, Schorr said, the youths have gained ground in developing self-confidence and ways to positively express themselves. In fact, it was the young adults themselves who approached her about doing a workshop at the state suicide prevention conference, not her putting them up to it.

"When you start accessing power and emerge from that state of struggle, you begin to realize that you have choices and you have skills and tools you can use," Schorr said. "These young people absolutely amaze me. They bring me to tears some time. They're so supportive and insightful and talented."


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