University Relations and Communications

Art students bring awareness to the subject of suicide prevention

December 3, 2015 



Randi O'Brien, Assistant Professor, 208-682-0521
Carmen Price, University Relations & Communications, 657-2269


You're Not Alone Suicide Prevention

Ceramics II students will debut the project Friday, Dec. 4, during Billings’ Downtown ArtWalk, from 5-8 p.m.


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — When Montana State University Billings art students were given the task of creating a service learning project this semester, it didn’t take long for them to agree to focus their assignment on suicide awareness and prevention.


“We explored several ideas, but when we learned that suicide in Montana is the leading cause of death among youth ages 10-14, and that Montana ranks as one of the highest suicide states in the nation, we decided this was the most important issue our communities are faced with,” senior fine arts student Bonny Beth Luhman said.


Luhman is one of four students working on the assignment as part of MSUB’s Ceramics II course, taught by assistant professor Randi O’Brien. She, along with art students Amy Mason, Levi Weeks and Flora Hammond, will hit the streets Friday evening during Billings’ December ArtWalk, where they will distribute small ceramic keys they’ve created along with an informational card containing local and nation crisis hotline numbers.


Titled Social Glue, the project combines art with social activism with the intention to improve the lives of communities through the dissemination of civic and socially engaged art, O’Brien said.


“The students are using a visual means to spark dialogue about a topic that impacts most everyone,” she said. “They are becoming artists beyond the classroom—taking the skillset they’ve learned at MSU Billings and applying it to the broader community. It is art that builds communal bridges.”


Through their research, the group of students learned that conversation is the key to understanding the problems of mental health and the stigma that surrounds it.


“This idea of conversation being the key to understanding is how we conceptualized the keys,” Mason said. “They can be worn as necklaces or lapel pins, and are a metaphor to suicide awareness and prevention. It’s about initiating conversation and unlocking the stigma.”  


The aim is that they become a well-known symbol to signify that the community will come together to support those in need, she said. The group compared the keys to other recognizable global symbols, such as the HIV/AIDS red ribbon.


“The work we are doing is just the starting point,” Mason said. “We hope this will create a foundation, a springboard, for future classes to build upon.”


Students created plaster molds of nearly 100 unique keys, all of which came from several years-worth of found keys Mason has collected. After slip casting about 200 key pieces, the group glazed and fired each key in a Japanese-style kiln that was created by O’Brien for this project. The Raku firing process they chose heats the pottery quickly to high temperatures with a quick cooling process, a style known for unpredictable results and intense colors.


“We wanted each key to have unique features, representative of the community effort we hope this project will inspire to approach mental health in different ways,” Weeks said.


In preparation of engaging suicide dialogue with the community, the students received on Wednesday Question, Persuade, Refer, or QPR, training geared toward best practices of suicide prevention. The training teaches the signs of suicide and the thee basic principals of how to help save a life.


They also collaborated with “Let’s Talk Billings,” a teen suicide prevention project launched in 2012, led by Dr. Sarah Keller, assistant professor in MSUB’s communication department.


Keller explained to the group that using creative media to empower people to speak out about obstacles they face has historically been shown to bring about positive community change.


Shift in community
The group of students are hopeful the keys they’ve created with serve as a catalyst for more dialogue and action in the community.


Weeks, a member of the group who has lost multiple family members to suicide, said the keys will give the community another entry point to discuss a difficult topic.


“We’ve learned through our efforts that it’s about creating a culture shift in which suicide and mental illness can be discussed openly,” junior fine arts Weeks said. “Ultimately, the aim of the project is to get people talking about an issue that has historically been hidden behind closed doors.”


Suicide resonates with just about everyone, Hammond, a senior art major, said.


"The problems of mental health and the stigma that surrounds it are common everywhere,” she said. “What’s not common is people feeling like they can reach out for help.”


Service Learning

Applying the skills they’ve learned in class to a service project brings more meaningful perspective to what they are learning, O’Brien said.


“The end goal hasn’t been about art, but about community engagement,” she said. “This is service learning at its finest.”


Service learning, a teaching and learning component encouraged through MSUB’s Office for Community Involvement, integrates meaningful civic engagement with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities, service learning coordinator Jenny Randall said.


“The academic service learning programs allow our students to become more engaged in the content and excited to contribute to the betterment of our community,” Randall said.


Luhman said the assignment has been an incredible learning experience.


“I think we’ve all been inspired and motivated by our project,” she said. “It emphasizes the ‘doing’ rather than that of the ‘showing.’ It means more, because you aren't just doing it for a grade."


O’Brien said Social Glue has been the “single most gratifying moment” of her teaching career.


"I feel like it's our job as a college to build strong leaders in the community and these projects do that," O’Brien said.


She said service learning helps students’ self-esteem while they are making meaningful contributions to the community.


“To put it simply, I am proud. I am proud to know these young adults will enter our community as socially responsible artists. I cannot wait to see them flourish in Billings after they graduate.”


Learn more about Assistant Professor of Ceramics Randi O’Brien in Snapshots of MSU Billings.