Story by CHRISTIAN LOFTUS
The state faces mounting rates of mental illness following the pandemic caused by the coronavirus. The CDC reported a jump of 15-19% to 31% in Utah adults reporting anxiety and depression from 2019. A 2021 study performed by the Huntsman Mental Health Institute Occupational Trauma Clinic showed more than half of respondents were at risk of developing depression, PTSD, substance abuse and insomnia.
People under 24 are even more severely affected. Dr. Kristin Francis of the University of Utah said in an interview with ABC4 Utah, “Young people are reporting twice as high of rates in substance abuse disorders and recent suicidal thoughts when compared to adults. We also know from the CDC that emergency room visits for mental health concerns for young people has increased almost 50%.”
To combat the growing feelings of uncertainty, many young Utahns are turning to the arts. Three Salt Lake City-based artists under 30 have used their craft to work through social issues and share their experiences.
Brooklynn Meldrum uses paints to tell stories she couldn’t otherwise say. Although she painted regularly when she was younger, she took a long hiatus until the pressures of quarantine brought her back to it. “I started painting again as a way to express my depression non-verbally,” she said. “I just needed to get it out.”
Her abstract paintings are drawn in bold strokes with bright colors, and each one can be read like an allegory. About a work titled “Depression,” she said, “The bright colors are my true self, and the black over it is the depression I was feeling at the time. See how they spear out? It’s a sunset. Or a sunrise. I’m not sure.”
Madison Stenquist makes figures out of yarn to strengthen her relationships. She specializes in “amigurumi,” a style of crochet from Japan that creates miniature creatures. “It’s usually pretty random what I make,” she said in a phone interview. “But usually it’s for other people in my life so I look for favorite animals, characters, etc. Or anything that is cute.”
Stenquist first learned crochet from her grandmother, and uses it to maintain her mental wellness. “Crocheting for me is really helpful to calm my mind down from anxiety,” she said. A crucial part of that calm comes from gifting her art when it’s finished. “It’s always fun seeing people’s reactions to the things I make for them.” Her work can be found on her Etsy page under the name YarnQueenByMadie.
Amelia Epperson started making stickers out of economic necessity. “It was quarantine, and I was broke,” she said in a text interview. “Who wasn’t broke?” She used her experience with vinyl to start selling funny designs online. But her growing interest in the Black Lives Matter movement soon led her into creating protest wear. Her digital shop, Millie Vinylli Custom Tees and Vinyl Creations, churned out designs with intentionally provocative imagery with the intention of attacking racist ideology.
Epperson considers her work as an activist key to maintaining her mental health in the current political climate. “The only way I can be healthy,” she said, “is if I know that I’m not making things worse for other people. So, I attack the problem where I live.” She encourages others to consider promoting equality through her art. “The goal is to help people. I have to believe that if we get enough people talking, we can change some minds.”