Art program helps teens process feelings, avoid risky behavior

July 1, 2012



DANVILLE, Ill. — During her sophomore year at Westville High School, the normally outgoing Abbie Strebing began to withdraw from her family and friends, and from the activities she once loved to do.

Her mother Kelly Waclaw watched and worried: "She was not her same bubbly self. We went through a lot of changes in our life so I attributed her change to those changes, but it just kept getting worse — the tears and her being depressed."

"I kept it in a lot," remembers Abbie, now 17.

It wasn't until she created a sculpture she called "Pieces" for the "I Sing the Body Electric" program last year that Abbie confronted her feelings of depression, sought help and turned back to her family and friends for support.

Through the art project, "I thought about my depression in a different way," she says. "I decided to start going to counseling."

"She was able to express her feelings through art, and we got her the help she needed," says Waclaw.

Abbie built the sculpture as a participant in the I Sing the Body Electric program, an outreach program of the foundation of Provena United Samaritans Medical Center here. Modeled on an initiative in Mattoon, Ill., and named for the Walt Whitman poem, the program asks Vermilion County, Ill., youth to identify the top health risks they face and it issues a report on the results of that survey. Program staff enlist art teachers in area high schools to work with teens who develop art projects illuminating the risks. I Sing the Body Electric takes those art pieces on tour throughout the community.

The program gets young people talking about the issues, temptations, and risks, including depression, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying and smoking — and helps them understand the potential consequences of the choices they make. I Sing the Body Electric is the recipient of CHA's 2012 Achievement Citation. The honor goes to a CHA member organization for its leadership role in a bold program that furthers the Catholic health mission and delivers measurable results for the community.

I Sing the Body Electric "lets students know that others have the same issues as they. They see how others have gotten through their struggles," says program coordinator Dottie McLaughlin. "This program matters to our youth."  

Surfacing concerns 
To learn what problems are most pressing, I Sing the Body Electric administers the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in every high school in Vermilion County every other year. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey — and tailored for local use with the input of local teens, school leaders and others — the anonymous 120-question survey asks teens whether and how frequently they drink alcohol, smoke, take illegal drugs and text while driving and whether they have sex or self-mutilate through cutting. It also asks questions about their mental health, physical activity level, eating habits and home life.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Center for Prevention Research and Development compiles the results; and McLaughlin issues a report to the community, including to hundreds of people affiliated with the government, schools and community organizations in Illinois. No other report provides such an in-depth snapshot of local youth behavior, and so the information is used widely by organizations throughout the state to develop programs and write grants, notes Michael Brown, Provena United Samaritans president and chief executive.

According to the most recent report, issued in March 2011, the top 10 concerns are: alcohol use, teen sexuality, illegal drug use, body image, violence, depression and suicide, nutrition and physical fitness, seat belt use, domestic and dating abuse and tobacco use.

The results can be eye-opening for community members, says McLaughlin.

"There is so much these kids are going through," says Laura Irle, an art teacher at Danville High School.

"There is a lot of pressure on kids today," and they're facing some very difficult issues, says Brown.

But, until they see the survey results, many adults in the community are unaware of the prevalence of risky behaviors among teens, he says. The program "provides enough info for people to say, 'This is real. This could be happening to my son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter.'"  

A line of communication 
"We don't know as teachers and adults all the things these kids go through. They don't tell us. They hide a lot of things" about the pressures and temptations they're facing, says John Rackow, a Danville High School art teacher. I Sing the Body Electric is "a good thing because it lets us know what the current issues are."

Conversations among teens or between teens and teachers or parents can be fostered at any stage of the I Sing the Body Electric program cycle: McLaughlin shares the biennial survey results with all middle and high schools in the county, and teachers use the information for activities, lesson plans and chats. McLaughlin shares an informational packet with the teachers that includes background information on top health topics, and she meets with them in person.

And, during in-person visits to the schools, McLaughlin asks students to review the health risk report and volunteer to create an art piece on a subject that is important to them. This also spurs dialogue. I Sing the Body Electric displays the students' art at schools, art fairs and other venues.

When parents talk with their children about their day, the children may discuss the projects and health issues; or, if a parent views the art projects in a community display, that may be the conversation starter they need to talk about health issues with their children.

The tours have been a great catalyst to get children speaking about depression and risky behaviors, says Cathy Wenthe, a health teacher at Danville High School. She uses the survey information to create class projects, and encourages her students to enter their own art in the touring show.

If the projects, surveys or displays arouse especially strong emotions in children or evoke particularly poignant reactions, it is common for teachers and other adults to refer the children to the school's guidance counselor.  

Making an impression 
Students create paintings, sculptures, photographs, poetry, videos, interactive exhibits and posters. Each artist writes a statement about the meaning of their piece, and they include information on how people can get help if they're facing the same challenges.

Danville High School's Cassandra Ziegler is creating a sculpture of a pregnant man to challenge people to think about how the teen pregnancy issue would be different if men bore babies.

Danville High School's Alayne Martin made a poster for the art exhibit to encourage people in abusive situations to tell someone, and get help.

Strebing says when her sculpture on depression was displayed at her school, a few people told her they had similar feelings of depression.

The youth risk survey data substantiates that students who have seen the traveling exhibit are more likely to have thought deeply about the risks and consequences associated with unhealthy behaviors.

McLaughlin says the art gives creators and young viewers an outlet for expressing their feelings. "It gives children a voice, and their voices are so important. And it's important that we listen to what they are telling us and then respond to their needs," she says.

Sample questions from youth risk survey

The "I Sing the Body Electric" program biennially surveys students at every high school in Vermilion County, Ill., using an instrument based on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey.

Among the 120 questions on the 2012 version of the survey:

  • How often do you text while driving a car or other vehicle?
  • During the past 30 days, on how many days did you carry a weapon, such as a handgun, knife, or club?
  • During the past 12 months, how many times have you been bullied on school property (including name-calling, being picked on, gossiped about, or made fun of)?
  • Have you ever spread a rumor about someone else online, in a chat room, through a social networking site (Facebook or MySpace), in emails or through text messaging?
  • During the past 30 days, on how many days did you smoke cigarettes?
  • How many times have you been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant?
  • During the past 30 days, did you exercise to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight?

I Sing the Body Electric program details

  • The program serves nearly 6,000 students annually, including those who create and those who view the projects.
  • It has served nearly 136,000 people since its inception (this figure includes both children and adults — it counts those who have viewed the art displays as well as those who have created them.)
  • The program used $350,000 in start-up funding; and operates on a $102,533 annual budget. Most funds come from Provena United Samaritans Medical Center Foundation and Provena United Samaritans Medical Center, both of Danville, Ill.

Most recent survey results

The most recent I Sing the Body Electric report came out in March 2011. It is based on responses to a survey sent to 4,106 high school students in Vermilion County. Seventy-seven percent of those students completed the survey.

The report highlights reductions in risky health behavior by teens, based on a tracking of data from the program's initial survey. The report also flagged areas of concern.

Among the health risk improvements the report cited (between 2002 and 2010):

  • A 51.8 percent decrease in high school students who have ever used methamphetamines. For instance, in 2002, 1,588 students -- or 92 percent of respondents -- had never used the drugs. In 2010, 3,027 -- or 96 percent of respondents -- had never used them.
  • A 42.6 percent decrease in the number of youth who drink and drive. For instance, in 2002, 1,406 students -- or 82 percent of respondents -- had not consumed alcohol and driven during the prior 30 days before the survey was administered. In 2010, 2,821 students -- or 89.5 percent of respondents -- said they had not driven after drinking.
  • A 35.3 percent decrease in youth who binge drink (had five or more drinks in a row within a couple of hours).
  • A 28.7 percent decrease in teens who have ever smoked a whole cigarette.
  • A 27.4 percent decrease in high school teens who have had at least one drink of alcohol in the 30 days before the survey.

Among the issues the report called out:

  • Nearly half of Vermilion County females and over a third of males reported being bullied on school property.
  • Female depression has increased 27.3 percent over the 10-year period that the survey has been administered.
  • One third of females in Vermilion County and one in six males report deliberate self-harm, such as cutting.
  • One in six youth report taking prescription drugs not prescribed to them.
  • Rates of attempted suicide are nearly twice as high for Vermilion County youth as for youth nationally.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.