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Texas Arts Contest Highlights Mental Health As Pandemic Contributes To Growing Crisis 27

In 2020, Stefanie Kisamore won first place in the adult original artwork category of the Texas Mental Health Creative Arts Contest. Her piece “Help Me Help You” depicts the struggle she faced searching for her twin brother, who had been affected by mental illness and went missing. 

Stefanie Kisamore’s “Help Me Help You” won first place in the 2020 contest’s adult original artwork category. Photo credit: Texas System of Care website.

I would hope viewers would see that mental health not only affects the individual, but the loved ones and families of the individual as well,” she wrote in her entry description. “I put all my feelings of the situation into this painting: Sadness, anticipation, frustration, hope, and acceptance.”

Now, as the need for mental health care continues to rise during the pandemic, The Texas Mental Health Creative Arts Contest will host its sixth competition. Nearly four times the number of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression that month compared to the previous year. Finalists for the contest will be announced in May, which is also Mental Health Awareness Month. 

Launched in 2016, the contest helps draw attention to the overlooked topic of mental health by highlighting visual artwork, writing and photography for artists of all ages from pre-k children to adults. This year’s theme is: Why does mental health matter to you? The competition is hosted by The Texas System of Care, Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin, and Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). 

Contest organizer Christine Vo, who works for the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin, said she’s noticed many of the submissions by students focus on a common theme: isolation. 

“We’re seeing a lot of different narratives being played out about social isolation, you know, needing to prioritize mental health during this time because everyone is so separated,” she said. 

A panel of 12 Texas judges — including contest organizers, HHSC representatives and a few local artists — will select the finalists. 

The contest’s received 682 entries — up from last year’s 564 submissions. Vo said contest organizers made it a point to encourage submissions from underrepresented areas across the state, including North Texas cities like Arlington and Irving. 

“We did a lot of just like direct outreach with communities from smaller towns, just that you wouldn’t necessarily see,” she said. 

“Burden of Self” by Ellie Chavez won first place in the 2020 contest’s overall photography category. Photo Credit: Texas Institute For Excellence In Mental Health.

Before the pandemic, the contest would typically display the winning artwork at the state Capitol in Austin. This year, the contest will be all virtual  with artwork displayed in an online gallery and the HHSC calendar

Finalists will also be given gift cards and honored at a virtual art ceremony featuring local artists and speakers. Student artwork will be celebrated on May 7, Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

Vo said for many people during the pandemic, channeling their feelings into art has benefitted their mental health. 

“I think that people tend to neglect that art is a very, very great way for outlets during these times,” Vo said. “It’s a way to self soothe, it’s a way for people to process feelings and emotions.”

She said several entrants have even written about how the contest is helping them navigate the pandemic in their submission descriptions. Some entrants have said the arts contest has become an outlet to talk about and visualize what they’re going through. 

Vo said while viewers may not understand the mental health issues addressed in some of the artwork, she hopes viewing and reading submissions will start important conversations.

The winning entries of the 2020 contest and 2021 Mental Health Arts calendar can be found in Texas System of Care’s online gallery.