Alexandra’s black sketchbook is filled with her pencil drawings of roses, dresses, and people. The people don’t look like her. But they reflect the emotions Alexandra has felt.
“I’ve suffered from depression since I started middle school,” the 14-year-old says. For Alexandra, art is also a distraction from her worries. Life can still be hard. So she draws, she paints, and makes jewelry with a Denver program called Voz y Corazón.
One of her sketches depicts a girl wearing a crown and a long dress under the moon and stars. She’s crying. Below her, the page reads: “Let the night hide your tears.”
“This girl is going through a lot,” Alexandra says. “Even though she’s smiling, she has scars.”
Tough issues to talk about
CPR News agreed to only use Alexandra’s first name since this issue can be challenging to discuss. Alexandra says she's felt sad, alone, and thought no one would understand those emotions. That led to self-harming.
“It was a way I could release my feelings because I really couldn’t speak about them to my family,” she said.
Alexandra didn't want to speak about the delicate details behind this, but she says it escalated.
“One day, I tried to complete suicide,” Alexandra said. “But all I could hear were my sisters telling me that they loved me. So I said there’s a reason for me to be here.”
Finding voice & heart
Last year, after Alexandra’s depression and self-harming continued, a social worker at school recommended Voz y Corazón to her. In English, the phrase means “Voice and Heart.”
“When we got down to it, those were the two things the young people wanted others to know that they had and wanted to be supported,” said Dr. Lydia Prado, vice president of child and family services at the Mental Health Center of Denver.
Prado helped develop Voz y Corazón 12 years ago.
Similar programs in New York City and Pennsylvania use creative outlets to try to prevent youth suicide. Those behind Voz y Corazón were specifically targeting Latina girls ages 11 to 17, the group most likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts, Prado says.
“This is a place where they belong and they are told that they have something to offer,” Prado said.
The program has since grown to include not just Latina girls, but youth of all backgrounds and genders. A lot come from underserved areas. Around 300 young people make up 22 different groups around metro Denver. Most have a mentor and an artist who get paid to work with them. They meet weekly, some in schools and others in community centers.
“The young people aren’t talking to parents and adults because they don’t really trust what they will do with that info,” Prado said. “I learned right away that sixth graders are going to sixth graders, same with seventh graders. They’re going to each other first.”
Some have attempted suicide. Others want to know how to help a friend who’s considering it. So the students must attend a suicide prevention training every year. Michelle Tijerina says she was shocked to learn most everyone involved in Voz y Corazón has been touched in some way by suicide.
“I was saddened, I was motivated,” Tijerina says. “Whether we as adults or society want to recognize it or not, it’s happening.”
Tijerina herself knows this firsthand. She attempted suicide about 12 years ago. She now coordinates Voz y Corazón activities.
For students, art helps expression
Tijerina says that each student group sets ground rules and focuses on its own art, from painting to fashion.
“Sometimes we just need to start with something positive to get to that point of asking for help, of accepting help,” Tijerina says.
One group meets weekly at the Rainbow Alley center for LGBTQ youth in Denver. There, artist Gene Dillion works with the Voz y Corazón students and brings his art supplies to share.
“A lot of times when it comes to suicide, especially with youth, there’s this feeling of not being able to communicate what’s going on with you,” Dillion says. “Art is very essential to expressing a lot of the inner struggles, the inner conflicts, feelings, desires.”
Fourteen-year-old Alexandra is finding that her art is special, and so is she.
“I made it, so it feels really like it’s one of a kind, no one else is going to have it,” she said. “That’s how I feel, feel like I’m one of a kind.”
The group Alexandra does art with sees her as one of a kind too. They even gave her a nickname -- “The Captain.”
Alexandra says she doesn’t plan to be an artist. But through Voz y Corazón, she’s realized she enjoys helping others. She’s now considering a career in mental health.
The annual Voz y Corazón art show, with more than 700 pieces on display, takes place at Denver's Park Hill Golf Club at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 13.