Molly Lopez, director of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work’s Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health, took a moment to discuss the 2019 Children’s and Adults’ Mental Health Awareness Creative Arts Contest.

This annual contest, sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin, Texas System of Care and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, seeks to fight mental health stigma. Each year, children and adults of all ages can submit original artwork, writing, or photography for the opportunity to win prizes and have their work showcased at the Texas Capitol during the month of May, which is observed as Mental Health Awareness Month.

Tell us about how the contest started.

The art contest started in 2012 as a project within the Children’s Mental Health unit at the Texas Department of State Health Services. One of the biggest challenges was how to get the word out to children and supportive adults. For many years, people would fax fliers to schools and mental health providers and ask partners to hand-deliver them. We now have the opportunity to reach all ages through our new contest website, which we also use to honor winning art year-round. Many schools and child-serving organizations now know about the contest, and plan to participate. We are pleased that the number of submissions have steadily increased: this year we received 770 submissions, compared to approximately 330 last year.

The contest encourages the participation of children, from pre-K all the way to high school. Tell us more about that.

About one in five children are diagnosed with a mental health disorder and over 50 percent of mental health disorders begin in childhood. Unfortunately, most children with mental health disorders do not receive treatment for a variety of reasons, yet we know that mental health treatment works. We believe this contest starts a conversation about mental health in homes, schools, and communities. We hope that the children and adolescents who participate have the opportunity to talk about their work with parents, teachers, and others and to recognize that they have valuable contributions to this public conversation about mental health.

As a way to shine a light on the importance of caring for every child’s mental health, our institute also helps organize the annual Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, a free, family-friendly rally and festival that this years falls on April 27. We want to send the message that mental health is essential to everyone, that it’s okay to talk about it, and that children have important things to say about their own mental health and the mental health and wellness of their friends and family.

What trends have emerged over the years from the artwork submitted?

We have seen a lot of entries with powerful messages. The works express joy, love, grief, sadness, fear and share the artist’s optimism, hope, and courage, but also worry and despair. Sometimes we see themes that reflect societal issues that are impacting children. In 2017, for instance, we had a number of young children sharing artwork that reflected confusion, fear, and worry related to bi-cultural stress and deportation concerns in their communities.

"Life & deatn" by Arexy Z. 3rd place, middle school original artwork,
“Life & Death,” by Arexy Z. 3rd place, middle school original artwork,
Tell us about this year’s theme, and why it was selected.

The contest theme this year is “Why Does Mental Health Matter to You.” We have purposely kept the theme open so that participants can choose what they want to say with their art. We have also found that this theme generates thoughtful discussion for young children, adolescents, and adults.

How are the winners recognized?

Winning artists are notified directly and then announced through email and social media. It is thrilling to hear the excitement and pride that participants feel when they learn their work was selected as a winner.

The winning art is hosted year-round in an online gallery and displayed in public galleries. This year the artwork winners will be featured in the Austin’s West Studio Tour (May 11-12, and May 18-19) and included in the Mental Health Matters Public Display at the Texas Capitol, April 29-May 5.

We are excited this year to offer a Quell Foundation Writing Scholarship ($1,000) to a winner of the writing category who is a current college student or high-school senior. We are able to offer this scholarship thanks to the support of the Quell Foundation, which strives to reduce some of the serious consequences of mental illness, including incarceration and death by suicide and overdoses.

By Lynda Gonzalez. Published April 22, 2019.