Talking about mental health is never easy, especially for teens who are struggling with depression or other issues. The Positive Painting Project, started by Todd and Alisa Whysong in memory of their daughter, Katie, hopes to increase the conversation and decrease the stigma around mental health while bringing the community together through art. We talked with Todd Whysong about how the organization is helping teens—and adults—reach out when they need help.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): You started The Positive Painting Project to honor your daughter Katie’s memory. What can you tell us about her?
Todd Whysong (Whysong): Katie had a thoughtful, quiet, gentle demeanor, but she was also quick-witted and funny. Her laugh filled a room. She really took to drawing and painting, and used that as her method of expression. Unfortunately, not long after her 13th birthday, she started having trouble focusing and concentrating in school, and though it wasn’t your typical signs of depression, that turned out to be exactly what it was. We got her help, and after being diagnosed with depression, she leaned into advocacy for mental health and sharing the tools she learned with her friends who were struggling. Helping others helped her.
NHM: Is that how The Positive Painting Project got started?
Whysong: I can’t remember where she came across it, but there was this idea of students, parents and teachers doing more things around schools to encourage positivity and mental health. The idea was for them to create art around their schools to support students struggling with mental health like Katie was. Katie reached out to her favorite teacher, Nanci Goldberg, with the idea. She couldn’t have picked a better person to get things done. Nanci thought it was a great idea, and that they should do it, but then COVID shut everything down before it ever got started. Like a lot of others who suffer with mental health issues, COVID didn’t do Katie any favors. Her depression became worse and tragically, she kept it to herself this time. On March 10, 2021, 11 days after her 15th birthday, she ended her life. Now we’re trying to honor her memory by continuing what Katie started.
NHM: What is the project’s mission?
Whysong: Our goal is to continue Katie’s mission of using art to help destigmatize how we talk about mental health; to remind people that help is always available and that they should seek out help if they’re struggling. Suicide is the #1 cause of death among teens, and we want them to feel more comfortable asking for help. We want them to check in with their friends frequently, especially if they seem off. To bring attention to the issue, we ask people to paint colorful backgrounds on canvases, upon which we later screen print one of six heart-shaped messages of hope and give it back to them to display in their school, home, workplace or community. The messages include You Matter, Hold onto Hope, You are Not Alone, No Feeling is Final, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, and Never Ever Give Up.
NHM: The project has really grown since its inception.
Whysong: It’s taken on a life of its own. We’re now in 21 schools across 18 districts. We sometimes do festivals as well. We started at Dorseyville Middle School where Katie had the idea, then moved on to Fox Chapel High School. Then teachers and counselors in other districts began reaching out asking how to bring the project to their schools. Shaler High School was the first school outside of our home district to hold an event. They thought it would be a great way to help kids blow off some steam after midterms. The event was really well received; we weren’t sure how it would go outside of our district where kids knew who Katie was, but Alisa and I were humbled and overwhelmed with the turnout and enthusiasm.
After that, we didn’t need to reach out to schools; universities including Duquesne, Point Park and Pitt held events, and we’ve also heard from community groups and afterschool programs who wanted to participate.
NHM: Why do you think the project has been such a success?
Whysong: The ownership of paintings is what’s important. It’s what sticks with the project. It’s not just counselors and teachers putting up signs around school; painters are seeing their own work, and it really resonates with them.
The amount of people who have opened up to us because of their struggles or the struggles of a friend or relative never ceases to surprise us. There’s such a negative stigma about getting help. When you come home from a doctor or dentist visit, you have no problem saying that’s where you were, but people have a fear of being judged when they need help with mental health. Depression is a terrible disease: it tells you that you’re not important and worthless, and a burden to other people. That the world would be better off without you. That’s why it’s so important to talk more openly about it.
When you share your experiences with someone, you’re not dumping your problems on them—you’re letting them know that they can share with you, too. Often, people are waiting for someone else to talk first, and you have to get over that hurdle.
NHM: What does it take to make the artwork happen?
Whysong: It’s really a community effort. We had screens made at Etna Print Circus, where Allison and Joyce taught us how to screen print, and Nanci Goldberg was hugely helpful in getting it all started. At the beginning, we sold t-shirts to get start-up money, which we still do every now and then as a fundraiser to keep going. We go to Ketchup City Creative in downtown Sharpsburg to screen print each painting by hand and with enough help, we can finish quite a few pieces in one afternoon. We typically text a message out to our team, and whoever is able to come, comes. Anyone who wants to be a part of it is always welcome. The most we’ve ever done is 600 in a day; just in this area, we’ve done more than 4,000 canvases.
NHM: You’ve created other ways for students to get involved in the arts as well.
Whysong: We’ve established the Katie Whysong Scholarship for the Arts that has provided full tuition for 11 young teens to attend art classes in Fox Chapel, O’Hara Township, Carnegie and Johnstown. Katie was fortunate to have that opportunity, and we think that all kids should have it. It helps support local artists, too, since it helps to keep art studios open. It’s a win-win.
NHM: Speaking of local artists, you’re also creating opportunities for them to share your message with the community.
Whysong: We hope to reach a lot of people through wall murals, like the one that Rabbit, a local Sharpsburg artist, is painting on the wall of a playground in the center of Sharpsburg at 13th and Canal streets. Alisa went to a city council meeting to get the idea approved, and Rabbit picked ‘You Matter’ from our six messages of hope and got to work. Now there’s a 10 x 12 mural that shares our message with the entire Sharpsburg community. We’re always looking for wall space to do more.
NHM: How do you think that Katie would feel about how the project has grown?
Whysong: I know that the idea that she can still help others in need would mean so much to her. It means more to us than we could ever describe. The way in which she lived in this world and the lives she touched and continues to touch means a lot more than how she left this world. Neither of those should be forgotten. A life that continues to touch others goes on forever and through the project, we’re carrying on her name so that the world doesn’t forget who Katie Whysong was.