When Golden High School lost three students to suicide in the 2015-2016 school year, the staff at Foothills Art Center longed to do something to help. But they knew it would be a challenge. The problem of youth suicide is a pervasive one without an easy fix.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 12 and 24, according to the Population Reference Bureau. And according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2017 report on youth suicide, 7.3 percent of high school students said they had attempted suicide in the past year, while 31.5 percent of high school students said they had experienced persistent feelings of hopelessness.
“What’s the biggest challenge of implementing a program [to address teen suicide]?” Hassan Najjar, executive director of Foothills Art Center, asks. “It’s the stigma associated with asking for help.” The arts, Najjar thought, could be a way to counter that stigma by making the issue visible. So Foothills applied for an Arts and Society grant, administered by RedLine Contemporary Art, to fund several projects.
With that money, Foothills led art-therapy workshops, brought in Affinity Arts Consulting to do an interactive theater performance focusing on bullying at Golden High School and commissioned Denver artist Jolt to work with high school students to paint a 600-foot long mural on Washington Avenue, between 2nd and 5th Streets. Then the center asked videographers at Denver’s F4D Studio to document the course of the project and its role in starting a community conversation. The documentary, Wall of Hope: A Source of Strength, will premiere this Tuesday at Foothills Art Center, part of Artsweek Golden.
Najjar explains that the documentary will help the project’s influence live on. “We really wanted something that could speak to the entirety of it,” he says. “People were saying such brilliant, compassionate things throughout the course of the project, and we wanted to capture that.”
In the documentary, students, teachers, principals, members of the Rotary club, artists, school psychologists, and even the mayor of Golden, Marjorie Sloan, speak about how teen suicides have impacted their community, and what they think needs to be done. Two of the most important voices are those of Beverly and Peter Ewers, who lost their sixteen-year-old son, Noah, to suicide in 2015. The Ewers speak about the importance of the community giving at-risk teens opportunities to seek support.
The documentary project concentrates on a school club called Sources of Strength, formed independently of the Art Center's grant program. Sources of Strength is part of a nationwide effort intended to help students address and prevent suicide within their own schools using peer networks. “It was impressive what the students there were doing, the conversations they were having within themselves and trying to address this issue of mental health within their school,” Gabe Rovick, director of the project, says. “I was totally impressed with their dialogue and their care and attention. Everyone was super into it.”
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F4D Studio then captured the process of creating the mural, which Golden High School students worked with Jolt to design. The challenge was to create a piece of art that could speak to someone who really needed help, in a way that was hopeful and uplifting. They chose aspen trees to represent the idea of being individuals living together as one system. Viewed from a distance, the trees spell words such as “hope,” “persevere,” and “influence.”
According to Najjar, Golden High School hasn’t experienced a suicide since the projects started. “Sources of Strength is a relatively new program adopted by high schools across the country,” Najjar says. “If this is a film that other high schools and counselors can see, maybe it’s something they can consider as an option for their own student body.”
The documentary screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street in Golden; the program is free and open to the public. The filmmakers, artists and community partners will be there to speak about their efforts. The movie will be available on Vimeo after the premiere.