Margaret L. Hopkin Middle School partook in a new counseling program for its students in May: “Arts & Chats: creating art for social connection,” run by the Utah Multicultural Counseling Center. The program ran each Wednesday, with the last session on the 25th. 

The art approach to counseling uses creativity through drawing, painting, music, and movement as a “therapeutic tool to help initiate change, emotional growth, and healing,” according to the MCC. 

“We’ve been recognizing, around the state, a need for youth to have social engagement and practice communication and emotional expression,” said Joanna Onorato, a bilingual therapist and rural programs supervisor at MCC. Onorato ran the program at MLH Middle School, which also included other rural students from around the state via Zoom. 

Onorato said she felt supported by the community when establishing the program in Moab—Stephanie Biron, the middle school school-based therapist, helped the MCC collaborate with both the school and the community, and the Moab Free Health Clinic offered to sponsor the group so it would be free to all participants. 

Around the state, Onorato has noticed trends in social isolation in youth in response to COVID-19, she said. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory to highlight “the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.” And even before the pandemic, the National Survey of Children’s Health, funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau, found that in 2018-2019, 13% of children ages 3-17 were diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health condition; of those, anxiety was the most common. 

“I think with school back in person, and more opportunities for social engagement, [isolation] has improved,” Onorato said. “But just having a supportive social environment is so important, especially for those middle school years.” 

The creative aspect of the program introduces a new way of communicating, Onorato said—some students may not feel comfortable verbalizing their thoughts or feelings, so it’s a way to spark communication. The group is non-judgmental, she said: there’s no wrong way to be creative. 

The group was capped at eight students, all from rural communities. It was the first time Onorato has used a hybrid format in a program. Telehealth allows for students from small communities to access services and other peers outside of their community, she said.

“Here in Moab, we value mental health, especially for youth, so we have those school therapists who are doing an awesome job,” she said. “But the reality is that there’s more need than there are people who can provide a service, and that’s a problem we’re seeing around the state.” 

Onorato is planning another Arts & Chats program in July. Any middle school students or parents interested can contact the MCC at 801-915-0359.