Last year, Taylor Robinson, a Boulder High School junior, was struggling. Robinson was a freshman when the pandemic shutdown happened, and when it was time to return to school in-person, they became extremely overwhelmed and anxious.
“I have watched friends and classmates and peers go through very similar things and struggle to ask for help, to find help, and to feel safe asking for help,” Robinson said. “I know a lot of people struggle with seasonal depression. Finals are coming up, and that’s stressful. It’s been a lot in our community in the past year, and months.”
Hannah Berns, also a junior at Boulder High, echoed Robinson’s experience. “School’s been insane the past few weeks,” she said. “We’ve had two swatting incidents for school shootings. There’s been suicides this year.”
Figures back up observations of a growing mental health crisis. Rise Against Suicide, a Lafayette-based nonprofit that provides free therapy sessions for Boulder youth who have suicidal thoughts, received 333 referrals in fiscal year 2022, more than double the previous year. In total, it held 2,703 sessions during that period, a year-over-year rise of 150 percent.
The trend is continuing: In February 2023, the group received 45 referrals, and more than 30 so far in March. Nationally, the U.S. surgeon general has warned of a “devastating” youth mental health crisis, with surveys of young people showing “alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges.”
Boulder High offers students access to a counselor employed by the district, as well as one who provides intervention and prevention services (counseling sessions and check-ins) at school through the nonprofit Mental Health Partners. Six counselors help with post-high school planning, along with social and emotional development. A handful of groups and clubs provide health resources and support.
But with more than 2,000 students, the high school lacks the ability to help every student with mental health issues.
“They do care, and they want to make a difference,” Berns said of the Boulder High staff. But “there’s only so much that you can do inside a school environment because school is one of the biggest stressors in a lot of teens’ lives.”
So Berns, Robinson and other Boulder High students took matters into their own hands by creating a space for local teens to help foster each other’s mental health. In January 2023, they started SEEN — in collaboration with Creativity Alive, a local arts organization founded by Merlyn Holmes — to showcase visual art, writing and live performances on mental health struggles through pop-up exhibits and events. On April 7 and May 7, the high schoolers — four of whom are paid interns, while two volunteer — will inaugurate SEEN at East Pearl’s OZO Coffee, featuring work of local youth.
“A lot of people are struggling with, ‘What do we do?’” said Robinson, one of the SEEN interns. “Here’s one thing: Just give us space to see each other,” they said. “I know what it feels like to be listened to, and what it feels like to be ignored, and I am over the moon that I get to help create a space where no one is ignored.”
Robinson said SEEN is a way to buttress school staff. “At the end of the day, Boulder admin and us have the same goal, and that’s to help the students,” Robinson said. “Let’s create this space, which we know that people need, to take the pressure off the school.”
This is especially important because “a lot of adults go into fix-it mode. That’s not how mental health works,” they said.
Indeed, for the students, a core part of SEEN’s mission is to avoid problem-solving and approach each other with empathy.
“We’re not trying to label this as a fix for anything,” said Amiya Vashi, a sophomore at Boulder High and a SEEN intern. “We’re not trying to make anybody feel like they need to be solved, like they’re a problem. We’re just trying to allow them to tell their stories.”
Vashi said that displaying her visual art in OZO next month, plus playing music at SEEN’s gallery debut on April 7, is a welcome deviation from class grades and guidelines.
“We’re not having to worry about competing with anyone else or being judged by adults for the way that we act or express ourselves,” Vashi said.
It is also “super important” that teens be seen and heard by adults, said Holmes, who founded Creativity Alive in 2016. Late last year, she reached out to Boulder High art, writing and music teachers to call for interns to help her start SEEN. “It’s the adults who have the biggest hold on power and thus the greatest ability to change some of the institutions that aren’t serving our teens as much as is needed.”
“In any system, whether it’s a school system or most employment systems, there are hierarchies,” Holmes said. “Students are at the bottom of those hierarchies, just by nature. The whole institution [of high school] would have to change for them to have the kind of empowerment” SEEN offers.
Empowerment is also partially why Berns founded Boulder High’s extracurricular creative writing club in January 2022, and wrote a piece of poetry for SEEN’s April 7 showcase. The club encourages students to write, without the pressure of school assignments.
“When there are things that I felt like I can’t say out loud or tell people — or when I also was having a hard time figuring out what I was feeling — I always turn to some form of writing,” Berns said. “This generation of teens is put into this box of ‘we’re all struggling with mental health.’ Even though it’s good that people are noticing that, it takes some of the ability to express yourself individually away [from us].”
“We’re hoping [the Boulder community] can get a new perspective,” Vashi said, “because the teen perspective isn’t heard a lot.”
‘Not just a teen thing, it permeates our culture’
After receiving around 30 art submissions, SEEN accepted half to display in OZO. For pieces that didn’t quite align with SEEN’s mission, interns gave feedback so artists can submit again for future showings. Though SEEN is run by, and geared toward, teens, interns invited the entire Boulder community to submit artwork.
“That hunger is real,” said Holmes of the need to feel seen. “It’s not just a teen thing, it permeates our culture.”
While adults may observe the teens’ art, and even make their own, during SEEN’s showcase, “a lot of teens will get to maybe see themselves in our work,” said Robinson, who will display their oil painting at OZO.
Other venues have reached out to display SEEN artwork in the summer and fall. SEEN has attracted city sponsors, including Boulder Arts Week and the Neighborhood Services Connection Grants. These sponsors help pay wages for interns and Holmes, and fund art-hanging supplies for the showcases.
Berns said that, while the topic of mental health can be a heavy one, she doesn’t want SEEN’s showcases to feel tense. “I hope we can talk to each other and say ‘hi,’ comment on art and see what people are doing, see what people are feeling when they create that art, and bring it down to basic human connection,” she said.
“You don’t have to know a bunch about art or composition,” Robinson said of attending SEEN’s showcase. “Just come with an open mind, an open heart and open eyes.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call Colorado Crisis Services at (844) 493-8255. SEEN’s first free gallery opening is on April 7 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at OZO Coffee on East Pearl.