Two projects focused on supporting high school students’ social and emotional health through theater and strengthening hospital nurses’ mental health resilience have been named winners of the 2021 Pabst Steinmetz Foundation Arts and Wellness Innovation Award. Each project received a $25,000 grant.

The awards were founded in 2018 by Central Florida’s Pabst Steinmetz Foundation to recognize cross-disciplinary teams building sustainable models for arts and wellness innovation. The teams, comprising UCF personnel and community organizations, must involve the UCF College of Arts and Humanities and at least one other college, unit, or center from the University of Central Florida, as well as a community organization.

“Chuck are I are delighted by the range and depth of initiatives that the Arts and Wellness Innovation Awards have inspired,” says Margery Pabst Steinmetz, who co-founded the foundation with her husband and initiated these annual awards at UCF. “Campus and community partnerships create teams that combine the best academic thinking and application for building capacity and sustainability.”

In Fall 2021, 10 teams submitted proposals for the two awards. Winners were chosen for being interdisciplinary, sustainable and community focused.

Mind Matters: Building Social-emotional Resiliency for High School Students Through Theater

Mind Matters builds upon Act Out Justice, an existing partnership between UCF and Orlando Repertory Theatre that invites high schoolers to explore social justice through storytelling and theatre. This project will provide the funding and partnerships necessary to support participating students in exploring issues of mental and socio-emotional health.

Young actors in the 2019 production of “Act Out Justice.” (Photo by Emily Freeman)

“Creating devised theatre for social change with high school students has taught me that mental wellness is a topic about which high school students are incredibly passionate and curious,” says Elizabeth Brendel Horn, primary investigator for the project. “Moving through the COVID-19 pandemic, with the upheaval of normal daily activities, the pivot to remote learning and an increase in social isolation, the state of mental health for high school students in our country is at a crisis point. Additionally, mental health is an issue of social justice, with those from marginalized populations, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth, at greater risk.”

The project will consist of several phases, including listening sessions with high school theater teachers; the development of 10 new short plays about mental health for use in class or performance; the development of curriculum to accompany on one of the plays; and the launch of an open-access website featuring the project curriculum and resources, along with the published anthology of plays.

“It feels important and timely to shift my applied theatre work with youth to focusing on this topic,” says Horn. “I am thankful that with this award and the amazing team that has assembled for this project, we have access to the resources and knowledge we need to create meaningful and relevant theatre programming about mental health and resiliency for high school students.”

Researchers from the College of Arts and Humanities, College of Sciences and community partners include:

  • Elizabeth Horn, associate professor of theatre for young audiences
  • Steven Berman, associate professor of psychology
  • Allison Phillips, adjunct professor of psychology
  • Emily Freeman, director of Community Partnerships for Orlando Repertory Theatre
  • Jennifer Adams, senior director of Education for the Orlando Repertory Theatre
  • Maria Cary, resource teacher, Orange County Public Schools
  • Jonathan Dorf, co-founder, YouthPLAYS

Strengthening Hospital Nurses’ Mental Health Resilience Through a Peer Support Training Program Using Comic Testimonials

UCF RESTORES, the nationally acclaimed nonprofit clinical research center and treatment clinic, developed the REACT (Recognize, Evaluate, Advocate, Coordinate, Track) peer support program to better acquaint first responders with evaluating and responding to mental health stress injuries. This project aims to enhance and adapt that program using comic testimonials produced by hospital nurses, drawing on the established movements of graphic medicine and comic therapy.

Panel of comic created by Nathan Holic and a nurse manager. (Illustration by Blake Scott)

“Now, more than ever, nurses need support for mental wellness as they continue to navigate stressful work conditions,” says Blake Scott, primary investigator for the project. “Our comics-in-healthcare team of nursing and writing and rhetoric faculty is thrilled to partner with the renowned UCF RESTORES research center to expand their peer support training program for area hospital nurses, focusing on incorporating nurses’ comic testimonials.”

The project will involve three steps: a series of workshops to train area hospital nurses in creating autographical comics about their experiences; adaptation of the REACT workshop materials for acute care nurses and incorporating the autobiographical comics into workshop’s case scenarios; and using the comics in cultural competency training for mental health specialists who would assist nurses with more severe mental health stress and trauma.

“The comics we help nurses create (and possibly publish) would not only enhance peer-based training for identifying and supporting struggling nurses but also provided nurses with an innovative means of art therapy and self-advocacy,” says Scott.

Researchers from the College of Arts and Humanities, College of Nursing, College of Medicine and College of Sciences include:

  • John Blake Scott, professor of writing and rhetoric
  • Clint Bowers, Pegasus Professor of psychology, UCF RESTORES director of Resilience and Prevention
  • Caylee Neisler, UCF RESTORES Research and Medical Outreach Coordinator
  • Sandra Galura, assistant professor of nursing, director of master’s in nursing leadership and management program
  • Christa Cook, associate professor of nursing
  • Nathan Holic, associate lecturer of writing and rhetoric
  • Aislinn Woody, Ph.D. student in nursing
  • Maeher Sukhija, undergraduate student in biomedical sciences

Since its inception in 2018, eight projects have received funding for the Pabst Steinmetz Arts and Wellness Innovation Awards.

Winning initiatives in 2018 were “The Arts and Aging: An Interdisciplinary and Intergenerational Initiative” and “Positive Parenting Fables.” 2019’s winners were “Creative Approaches to Combat HIV Stigma and Discrimination from Health Providers” and “Project Xavier Hands-free Training Game,” and 2020’s winners were “Fables Versus Urban Legends: Storytelling About Vaccines at the Intersection of Ethnography and Epidemiology” and “Advocating for Aphasia: Using the Performing Arts to Create a Conscious Community.”