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Penn State students put a face on mental health

Nearly 200 painted masks done for the Mask Project to raise mental health awareness will be displayed in downtown stores Friday during the First Friday event.
Nearly 200 painted masks done for the Mask Project to raise mental health awareness will be displayed in downtown stores Friday during the First Friday event. Photo provided

To deal with pressure, you can put on a brave face — or, as recently shown, paint beautiful ones.

On a warm afternoon last week, a group of Penn State students set aside thoughts of final papers and exams and indulged in some relaxing arts and crafts. They sat around a table in the downtown office of Beck Psychotherapy, painting vivid designs on mannequin-like masks, nibbling free calzones and taking a break from crunch time.

“It’s just a good way to reduce stress during finals,” sophomore Emily Sweigart said.

They also were contributing to an important cause.

Beck Psychotherapy, the Jana Marie Foundation and Mount Nittany Health arranged the event as part of their “Many Faces of Mental Health” mask project celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month in May.

The painting capped a creative month. Earlier in April, the organizers held a similar session. Another project sponsor, Skills of Central PA, and the Penn State Active Minds mental health support group offered mask painting as well.

All the decorated masks, nearly 200, will be on display Friday at Appalachian Outdoors, Miska & Reini Goldsmiths and Jewelers, Moyer Jewelers, Animal Kingdom and Uncle Eli’s Artist Marketplace during the Downtown Improvement District’s First Friday festival and then throughout the month.

“The masks symbolize the many faces of mental health, and were painted by community members in support of themselves, someone they care about, or even someone they never have met,” said Marisa Vicere, president of the Jana Marie Foundation, a nonprofit that works with schools and families to foster mental health awareness.

“The painting sessions allowed people to come together and support one another.”

Dan Beck said the project sought to encourage discussion and new friendships, provide an opportunity for shared artistic expression and demonstrate a mutual commitment to mental health.

“It shows that people care. The community cares,” he said. “I think that’s a powerful expression.”

At First Friday, visitors can post pictures of the masks to social media using the hashtag #SCFirstFriday and be eligible for a $50 downtown State College gift card. It’s all meant to shine a light on a dark subject for many.

“Together, the masks will help ignite conversations about mental health and will demonstrate how a town can come together to raise awareness and support,” Vicere said.

Together, the masks will help ignite conversations about mental health and will demonstrate how a town can come together to raise awareness and support.

Marisa Vicere, president of the Jana Marie Foundation

“Our biggest hope is that people will know that they are not alone. If they or someone they know are struggling, help is available.”

First Friday’s lineup includes other events tied to mental health. Project Semicolon founder and author Amy Bleuel will join You Rock Foundation founder Joseph Penola at Webster’s Bookstore Café, and local art therapist Rhonda Stern will talk about creativity at CommonPlace. Check out the full schedule at www.firstfridaystatecollege.com.

The focus on mental health comes at an apt time. April may be the cruelest month, but for many, May comes close. As the weather grows more mellow, life takes the opposite tack, full of tasks and deadlines before summer arrives. It can be mentally draining, especially for students caught in the vise of a dwindling semester.

Mask painting offered a satisfying timeout — nothing at stake, nothing more complicated than a peaceful hour or so with a brush, palette and unorthodox canvas.

“Just doing the craft was really fun. It takes your mind off school,” said Penn State sophomore Stephanie Springer, who invited her brother along.

He also enjoyed the diversion.

“You focus on something that’s not for a grade,” senior Zack Springer said. “It’s just a project that’s for fun.”

Freshman Alex Brewton was having a good time hunched over his mask, but he had a serious explanation for his design: a yellow forehead, a green band across the eyes and nose, a red and blue mouth and, finally, a patch of gold beneath the chin.

His colors represented a troubled mind’s emotional turmoil, he said.

“Often, when people have mental illness, they kind of lose this sense of who they really are,” Brewton said. “Sometimes, the emotions overwhelm the gold underneath.”

He dabbed some gold, eager for the chance on Friday or during May to discuss his mask again.

“People might talk about it, and then I’ll get to explain it and why I painted it,” he said. “I guess you could say it’s going to be a conversation starter.”

Chris Rosenblum is a freelance columnist who writes about local events and people. Send column ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

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