'There's not one way to heal, just like there's not one way to do art': Arts in Recovery for Youth expands suicide prevention programs

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PITTSFIELD — Each member of the Arts in Recovery for Youth initiative experiments with different styles of art and media: pencil sketches, papier-m ch masks, free form collages, colorful photography and inspirational cross-stitch. One technique that's become quite popular among AIRY members is called a "dirty pour," where more than one paint color is mixed in the same container before pouring it out onto the surface to be displayed. The result is marbled rainbow-colored puddle, a substrate born from a quick-and-dirty process that's at once random yet intentional, creative yet cathartic.

During this month's opening for the AIRY exhibit, "HOPE is a Four Letter Word," at the Whitney Center for the Arts, Jack Kelly, 16, showed an example of where his mixture of reds and blues poured to form a heart shape on the canvas. "The moment I noticed the heart I saw the opportunity to make something intentional out of this," he said.

He left the heart in a bubble of white space then around that, shaded the rest of the canvas in strokes of cranberry red. In black paint, in the bottom left hand corner, he wrote the word "LOVE" in capital letters.

Kelly, a tall, articulate young writer who struggles with depression, said working in the AIRY studio is a process that brings up a "complexity of emotions." But, he said, he finds solace in making art in the company of peers "who are there for similar reasons," and whose "goal is to lift other people up."

Opening up is the first step, which, he said, felt difficult at first. "But then I thought, "I want to be able to think I can do this, that I can participate, and that I can get more out of it if I do.""

So, he did.

A pilot member of the arts therapy youth group, both he and AIRY have flourished together.

A variety of their art and expressive techniques will remain on display at the Whitney Center through October, featuring 98 works by 22 young artists.

There's a need, a demand

According to data collected by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 401 youth between the ages of 10-24 in Massachusetts died by suicide between 2011 and 2015.

More than a support group, AIRY uses a curriculum rooted in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills development that involves a youth, their therapist and a family member, and offers the young adult ways to better communicate, cope and gain confidence in their abilities, and hopefully, increases their will to live.

In less than two years the program — established by local artist and arts therapist Marney Schorr — has grown from helping a handful of kids to serving 38 teens and young adults to-date, and subsequently garnering multiple awards. Back in May, Schorr and her students presented a workshop for the annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference in Framingham, and she's slated to present again at a New York City Expressive Therapies Summit in October.

This fall, AIRY is extending the length of its local sessions, from 12 to 16 weeks, and is expanding from two to three locations: a new group and a continuing "Step Up" group will meet at NUarts Gallery & Studios in Pittsfield; a group will continue at the ROOTS Teen Center in North Adams, and the inaugural group at the Bushnell-Sage Library in Sheffield will begin in October.

On Monday, Sept. 17, at 6 p.m., the Bushnell-Sage Library will host "Talk Saves Lives," a brief introduction to suicide prevention and warning signs of suicidal thoughts. Parents in attendance can also learn more about AIRY and the new Arts in Recovery for Youth group that will be starting there.

On Sunday, Sept. 23, AIRY will present "Carpe Diem: Commemorating Life Through Music & Art," a festival featuring local bands and art at the Adams Agricultural Fairgrounds, again to benefit the program and its efforts to support young adults, ages 13 and up, who struggle with suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Fundraising, Schorr said, is now critical.

"We've grown so fast because the kids are coming out and saying we want to join," she said.

Sometimes, she said, there's been more requests for youths to join a group than could be accommodated.

"We weren't able to foresee we were going to have to expand the staff and the money we needed to do it so quickly," said Schorr.

Right now, the goal is for AIRY to serve 100 teens and young adults in 2019, but the program is already at $20,000 deficit, she said. So she's aiming to raise at least $37,000 by the end of the year, on top of the grants AIRY has received from the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, Northern Berkshire United Way and the Cultural Council of Northern Berkshire.

"We're trying to do it by January so we can have confidence in going forward," said Schorr. "I'm just sort of praying that the community responds."

For the young people involved, AIRY is literally a life-saver.

While some of the teens and young adults have experienced a lifetime of hurt, abuse and other setbacks, others are navigating new traumas, from the death of a loved one to being bullied. Some students also have ongoing struggles with the effects of depression, anxiety and other thought- and behavior-altering disorders.

Kiara Bresette, 17, a poet and photographer, said all too often, mental health issues are presented in extreme and negative ways in media and movies.

"This is going about it in a more positive way," they said. "It shows that there's not only potential in Generation Z but that we're not monsters ... We're regular people with really strong emotions and traumatic [experiences]."

"It also shows that there's not one way to heal, just like there's not one way to do art," said 20-year-old Hunter Schrade, a painter.

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Both he and Bresette serve as interns with the program.

"With this group, we are saving lives and giving youth a place that makes you feel you are worth something," Schrade said.

Seventeen-year-old Shirley Gazaille of the North Adams group, led by counselor Cate Wolff, says AIRY is "wonderful."

"I love painting, I love drawing, and it's a coping skill for me," said Gazaille, a petite and personable person with short, scarlet-dyed hair and a hope-filled smile.

The young woman has been through a lot in life: separation from a parent, bullying, the loss of loved ones to cancer and attempts to self-harm. She was referred to AIRY by her therapist.

Between her boyfriend and her friends from AIRY, Gazaille says, "I've felt better to know other kids who have been going through what I have."

Now, Gazaille is aspiring towards an arts career of her own, either as a tattoo artist or art teacher, she said. And, she said proudly, she no longer tries to hurt herself.

"It feels really good to feel feel happy again and be free and be amazing," she said.

About AIRY

Enrollment for Arts in Recovery for Youth 16-week programs, for ages 13-22, is open for the following groups:

Mondays, 4-6 p.m., with Cate Wolff, Oct. 15-Feb. 11

ROOTS Teen Center, 43 Eagle St., North Adams

Tuesdays, 4-6 p.m., with Marney Schorr, now through Feb. 13

AIRY Step Up Group for previous participants

NUarts Gallery & Studios, entrance at 21 Union St., Pittsfield

Wednesdays, 3:30-5:30 p.m., with Cate Wolff, Oct. 17-Feb. 13

Bushnell-Sage Library, 48 Main St., Sheffield

Thursdays, 4-6 p.m., with Marney Schorr, Oct. 18-Feb. 14

NUarts Gallery & Studios, entrance at 21 Union St., Pittsfield

To register, please make an individual appointment prior to group start, as follows:

Pittsfield, contact Marney Schorr at airyberkshires@gmail.com or 631-697-8291.

North Adams or Sheffield, contact Cate Wolff at catewolff@gmail.com or 978-270-4113.

Learn more about AIRY at https://airyedu.com

Upcoming events

"Talk Saves Lives," 6-8 p.m., Bushnell-Sage Library, Sheffield. A brief introduction to suicide prevention and warning signs of suicidal thought, plus information and registration opportunities for the new AIRY program at the library. Free and open to the public.

"Hope is a Four Letter Word," on view through October, an exhibit of youth art to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention. Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield.

"Carpe Diem: Commemorating Life Through Music & Art," a showcase of local musicians and bands to raise money and awareness about suicide prevention for AIRY, 1-7 p.m. Adams Agricultural Fairgrounds, 371 Old Columbia St., Adams. Tickets are: $10 in advance, $15 at the door, $25 AIRY Supporter, $50 AIRY Angel.


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