CPO Cultural Arts Program Helps Students Heal 

As the world becomes a more inclusive place, there has been, perhaps for the first time, a true movement towards improving mental and emotional wellbeing. Just as one would visit a doctor to check on their vital signs, visits to therapists have become more frequently spoken about instead of hidden, resources for those in mental and emotional strife are readily available, and healing methods have been top-of-mind. 

One of those methods to healing is art. According to Role of Art Therapy in the Promotion of Mental Health: A Critical Review, “Art therapy can help people express themselves more freely, improve their mental health, and improve interpersonal relationships.” 

Stony Brook University students can also explore how art can heal, thanks to the Healing Arts Program run through the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO). The program is a success for CPO, tying together so many themes of wellness in a way that works for college students trying to care for themselves, some for the first time; others who need a soft place to explore feelings and experiences they had while growing up that may have been less than ideal; and some who are just looking for a creative outlet — but all together taking care of their heads and hearts. 

Getting the program off the ground wasn’t easy. CPO Associate Director Christine Szaraz said the Healing Arts program started as a group for victims of violence against women; a space where they could come together, find support, learn coping skills, reconnect to themselves and their bodies and express their emotions through art. But, she said, CPO soon realized that wasn’t going to work the way they wanted it to. 

“We started developing workshops that we called self-care for survivors. So what we found was that when we scheduled these events, we didn’t really get a lot of survivors coming,” Szaraz said. “And what we learned pretty quickly, is when you’re thinking about being inclusive, you have to recognize that sometimes the people you want to include don’t want to be included on the label that you’re giving them.”  

However, she noticed that the need for self-care and a program like this piqued the interest of so many students, whether or not they were survivors of violence — or identified that way. 

Healing arts 2

“I’d be hit with calls from any number of students saying, ‘I don’t identify as a survivor, but I certainly could use some self-care’,” Szaraz said. So, she and others on staff dreamt a little bit bigger, broader and more inclusively about what would work. First, CPO worked on a national advocacy campaign called Monument Quilts. After that program ran successfully, Szaraz knew she would have to find a way to bring healing arts to anyone who wanted to participate.

“By the time we get to 2016, we’re working with the folks in the craft center. And we tried a couple of different iterations over two or three semesters, essentially using the formula we now have, but trying different names. And what ultimately hit was this title, Healing Arts,” said Szaraz. 

Now, CPO is running these healing arts events and is very intentionally incorporating a variety of different topics that are relevant to students around managing stress and connecting with others. One of the key takeaways of the program is to help students realize what they’re going through and recognize the strategies and resources for dealing with it. Szaraz said a few examples are pairing a mindfulness theme with creating a mindfulness mood jar, while another is social support, pairing an animal charm jewelry making class with a visit from the PALS program. 

“Some of our events will incorporate multiple themes, and help students understand how the activities we’re doing relate to multiple areas of our lives. Some will focus on one key theme, maybe mental health and wellness, maybe alcohol and other drug awareness,” she added. 

Health Promotion Specialist Samantha Warren joined the team post-COVID and explained that the team is taking events to the next level to help promote overall wellness. 

“I manage our physical health cohort team. But there’s no physical health if we’re not taking care of our mental health, we’re not watching our relationship with substances if we’re not in healthy relationships,” she said. “So really combining those together has given us some of the most effective events that we’ve done.” 

The program just keeps evolving. Through peer educators and student assistants, CPO is going to begin hosting more personalized classes for as little as five students. Warren explained that this is due to the demand of clubs and organizations wanting to get more involved, but CPO not having the time or availability to service them. Now, through this smaller program, that will change. 

“Groups can come from five to 10 students, whether that’s an organization or a leadership team of a fraternity or sorority; it could also be somebody’s birthday and you all live on campus,” Warren said. “You can actually come and pick kind of what those coping skills that you’re looking for and do a guided night with our Healing Arts students.” 

Through it all, Szaraz said accessibility has been really important and has been key to the programs’ success. 

“We’re not creating things where you have to go to some kind of specialized website, or specialized place to get these really random supplies you’ll never use for any other kind of project ever,” she said.  “And that’s always been a part of it. Because it’s also like that accessibility and inclusivity part, we want this to be accessible to everybody; we don’t offer anything where somebody’s got to pay a fee to get in.” 

— Emily Cappiello

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