Building Resiliency Through the Arts

The Mental Health Impact of COVID-19

Life is complex and rarely presents a straightforward path, with the bumps along the way often offering invaluable learning moments and opportunities to grow.  Never has this been more apparent to me than over the last 22 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the beginning stages of the pandemic, I had no idea what the impact would be for our school or the way it would bring our mission into focus. We were simply just trying to get by. But as things settled into a new normal of online learning, it became clear that the mental health of youth, especially children within the lowest income communities, would be particularly hard hit. 

I saw the emotional impact first-hand while watching my daughter experience her senior year from behind a computer screen. So many milestone memories were lost; junior and senior prom, countless musical events, and simple day-to-day social interactions that are crucial to the development of a young adult. It was hard to watch her navigate through it all and to see the gradual sad acceptance of the loss. Like many of her peers, her trajectory was forever changed.

As evidenced in a recent study, children and adolescents experienced a 20% increase in aggression, hyperactivity, and attention during the pandemic, as well as a 40% in anxiety and fear. In response to this increase, the CDC advised that “the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions.” They recommended interventions such as social connection, economic support, and mental health services which prioritize young adults, those at risk of suicide, and racial/ethnic minorities.

The job and economic insecurity created by the pandemic has made day-to-day existence even more difficult for low income families, and it’s not surprising that the mental health repercussions have been greater for children from these homes in comparison to more advantaged peers. Further demonstrating the widening disparity gap created by COVID-19 was expressed by the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality in the article, Supporting Children’s Health During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. As NICHQ explains, “COVID-19 has upended children’s daily lives, resulting in added stress and uncertainty. Studies show that adversity during childhood, including adversity stemming from natural disasters, can have lasting impacts on children’s social emotional health. And troublingly, this adversity will disproportionately affect low-income families who have fewer resources.”

The pandemic made apparent the need for resilience and demonstrated the disparity between those who have access and those who do not.

The Building Blocks of Resilience

As outlined in the article, Fostering Resilience in Kids by Bonnie Benard, activities that emphasize mentorship,  cooperative learning, high expectations, and accountability can be protective against depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress. The building blocks of resilience, presented by Benard, are naturally fostered through an arts education.

Whether it’s through one-on-one private music lessons or group activities such as putting on a play, the arts can:

  • Present moments to strengthen a support system through socialization
  • Provide positive mentorship beyond the household
  • Offer an environment that emphasizes achievement through accountability

Most importantly, an arts education can provide supportive coping mechanisms to carry children during life’s most challenging times.

Through a conversation with a former parent at our school, I was once again reminded how the arts can foster resilience. As this parent expressed, “PMA gave my children something predictable and solid that they could count on during their childhood.” She explained more how her family had been going through difficult changes while her children were taking lessons at PMA and that the week-to-week consistency and ongoing connection with an instructor allowed her children to maintain a sense of normalcy during that difficult period. Her sentiments certainly made me proud that we made a difference to her children, but most importantly, it captured the essence of what the arts can do beyond the specific skill. Rather, that there’s something much deeper at play than simply learning to play a musical instrument or drawing a picture.

I have wondered what the pandemic would have been like for my daughter without the years of private lessons and countless group music experiences under her belt. As she retreated to the privacy of her bedroom for what seemed like days on end, it was a relief to hear her writing lyrics and singing her feelings out in song. I truly believe that the lessons learned prior to March 2020 were important to her ability to process all that was going on.  

It’s not that having an artistic outlet is ‘everything,’ but when it comes to building resilience for life’s hurdles, it can certainly be a big piece of the overall support puzzle.

Lessons Learned and Moving Forward

The pandemic has left an impression on all of us. Sadly, for many this has been through the loss of a loved one, the challenge of losing a job, or a senior year filled with disappointment. But for those of us in arts education, it has also highlighted the value of what we do and the ways we can support youth during times of struggle. For our school, it’s allowed us to stretch our teaching muscles in new and exciting ways, but it has also brought into clarity the role that we can play in supporting the well being of disadvantaged youth in our community. We’ve learned to step beyond our walls and the benefit of aligning with other youth based organizations to expand reach to underserved communities. So though the year has had its share of challenges, it has also brought rewards that have deepened our mission to offer inspiring, equitable, and emotionally supportive programming.

As we near the end of 2021, we hope that you’ll consider Prairie Music & Arts in your year-end giving. Providing enriching artistic experiences to ALL youth can only happen through the guidance, cooperation, and generosity of many. Through your help, we will continue to strengthen our mission to serve the Sun Prairie community and beyond for another 21 years. 

May the year ahead bring You – our friends, families, and supporters, a safe and healthy 2022!

With Gratitude, 

Kari Engleson, Prairie Music & Arts Executive Director