Mars Dobra was uncomfortable taking medication to feel “normal,” so he expressed his emotions in dramatic paintings.
As a youngster, Mia Flegal was so anxious about taking a trip without her parents that she felt like crying in a closet. She channeled those frightening thoughts, mixed with optimism about how to cope, into a powerful essay.
Mars and Mia are among a growing number of New Hampshire young people who have shared their personal journeys through the Magnify Voices Expressive Art Contest, which uses the arts, writing and video to help draw back the curtain on mental health challenges affecting young people. (Federal statistics show that one in five young people, aged 6-17 in New Hampshire experienced depression in 2021).
The contest, for youth in grades 5-12, began in 2019. It is coordinated by NAMI New Hampshire, with grant support from the Charitable Foundation and the Endowment for Health. Magnify Voices is part of the New Hampshire Children’s System of Care, a holistic and integrated approach to behavioral health care for children and families, which includes prevention efforts, community supports and clinical services.
“Here is the landscape: we have youth in crisis,” said Deb Jurkoic, NH Family Network Coordinator at NAMI New Hampshire. “The good news is that people are talking about it and sharing stories, which provides hope and helps people know they are not alone.”
Fed by negative effects of constant social media use and anxieties stemming from polarization, climate change, violence and more, many young people face depression, poor body image, low self-esteem, online harassment and inadequate sleep, said Susan Stearns, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire.
Those stressors and the continued fallout from COVID, she said, make the mental health issues facing today’s youth more complex than those their parents and grandparents may have experienced as teens.
Through Magnify Voices, New Hampshire youth can find a safe, reliable and supervised lifeline to help navigate the challenges.
“The youth artists who share their personal experiences through Magnify Voices help others to feel less alone in the midst of a larger youth mental health crisis,” Stearns said. “These artists offer hope to other youth, and to folks of all ages who engage with their artwork.”
The entries prompt important discussions and help break down the stigma of mental health conditions.
“It’s been so hard to talk about this for so many years, and now we are saying it’s okay to talk about it and that there is a message of hope and that you can get better,” Jurkoic said.
Dobra, 16, said illustrating his anxiety gave him a voice and helped him, and others, understand his struggles.
“It’s nice to be able to express what I’m thinking in a way that isn’t just directly saying it,” he said. “It can be hard to look someone in the face and say ‘This is what I am feeling.’’
In addition to an annual, statewide event celebrating the students and their entries, the work has been displayed around the state.
Dobra, a junior at the Arts Academy of New Hampshire in Salem, got involved in Magnify Voices in the eighth grade during the pandemic’s remote learning, which “was hard on everyone’s mental health,” he said.
In last year’s contest, Dobra’s paintings that portrayed his dependence, avoidance and acceptance of anxiety medication were among the finalists.
The avoidance painting shows a wary person sheltering under an umbrella from a deluge of pills. His acceptance painting shows one pill in the palm of a hand. “That was when I realized that taking medication was what I had to do and that’s what was helping me at the time.”
Flegal, 17, a senior at Nashua High School North, said Magnify Voices helped her make important, supportive connections; become an advocate for youth mental health and work toward a career helping children with mental health challenges.
She learned of the contest while in middle school from her social worker mom and wrote a story about anxiety. It included journal excerpts written during a ten-day trip she had taken as a child to California without her parents.
“The goodbye at the airport was hard because I’ve never been this far away for this long,” she wrote in her journal. “I feel like crawling into a closet and crying until the ten days are over.”
Though her 2019 essay was entitled “Helpless,” she outlined how she found ways to settle herself down and take control.
“I now know if I talk to someone, it helps,” she wrote. “You can too and you can help others as well by sharing your personal stories.”
The writing project was a turning point.
“That’s when I realized that there were so many people like me, and that kind of jumpstarted my mental health advocacy,” she said.
Since writing the essay, Flegal has been invited to speak to various groups, including mental health professionals – not easy for someone coping with anxiety. She said she has grown and learned much about mental health and her own anxiety, largely because of the connections gained through the contest.
“Being in that space with your peers and hearing that they are dealing with things that are so similar to you, that is the beauty of Magnify Voices,” Flegal said.
Dobra and Flegal said the contest expanded their own support systems and helped them support others.
Dobra’s art and inspiration even raised awareness in Florida after two students there read about his work, then completed a school project about him. Another young person struggling with addiction also reached out to say he related with a painting.
Flegal is grateful her parents were supportive, but while participating in a Zoom program for middle schoolers, she was reminded that not everyone is as fortunate when a girl asked: “What do I do if no one believes me?”
“That is something I will never, ever, ever forget,” she said. “I think that’s really why I want to work with children or adolescents because I want to be that steady adult that I grew up with, who knows how to get you connected to the people that you need to know and knows how to get you help.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, help is available 24/7. Call or text 833-710-6477, or visit www.nh988.com
Finding the right support isn’t always easy and knowing where to start is often the hardest part. The NH Children’s System of Care maintains a growing statewide resource list. A searchable list can be found here: https://nhcsoc.org.