The arts and humanities have a unique power to resonate with the human soul across time, place and socioeconomic status. When this power is harnessed by the community through sustainable, evidence-based and cross-disciplinary initiatives, the potential for positive human impact is limitless.

Based on this idea, the Pabst Steinmetz Foundation Arts and Innovation Award gives $25,000 grants to two proposals each year that combine programs in the College of Arts and Humanities with another UCF college as well as an external organization. The awards were founded in 2018 to build sustainable models for arts and wellness innovation at UCF and in the Central Florida community.

Winners of Pabst Steinmetz Foundation Arts and Wellness Innovation Awards exemplify the award’s ability to bring departments across campus together to create positive change in the community. Proposals from 2021 responded to that year’s theme of strength, resolve and resilience.

Last year’s two winning projects focus on using the arts and humanities to strengthen mental health resiliency in critical populations.

Strengthening Social-Emotional Resiliency for High Schoolers

Mind Matters: Building Social-Emotional Resiliency for High School Students Through Theater is a collaboration with UCF’s School of Performing Arts and Department of Psychology. The project builds on Act Out Justice, a youth theatre for social change program created through a partnership between Orlando Repertory Theatre and Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). Act Out Justice develops plays that address social justice issues inspired by students’ personal experiences. Mind Matters expands this programming to create plays and educational materials that focus on issues surrounding mental health in high school students.

During the listening stage of the project, a professional development day was conducted with theatre teachers from local high schools to identify the most prevalent issues surrounding mental health in the classroom. Twenty-four survey responses were collected, followed by general discussions and one-on-one conversations. Twelve teachers were then selected to participate in the project.

“The big things we noticed in the data was that anxiety and depression are some of the most prevalent things that our young people are navigating, and that is disproportionately impacting our students of diverse backgrounds, including students who identify as LGBTQ and or students of color,” says Emily Freeman, director of community partnerships at Orlando Repertory Theatre.

An Act Out Justice workshop. (Photo courtesy of Orlando Repertory Theatre)

The project team commissioned 12 diverse playwrights from across the nation to develop plays that address the issues identified in the surveys. The playwrights conducted Zoom sessions with each assigned classroom to discuss and develop the plays together. The anthology of plays will be published for teachers to use in future lesson plans addressing mental health resiliency.

“Theater classrooms provide rich opportunities for students to explore these important issues, because the art form inherently promotes dialogue and builds empathy.” — Elizabeth Horn ’10MFA, associate professor

“We know that the mental health needs of young people in the United States are critical. Theater classrooms provide rich opportunities for students to explore these important issues, because the art form inherently promotes dialogue and builds empathy,” says Elizabeth Horn ’10MFA, associate professor of the theatre for young audiences MFA and researcher for the project. “Right now, we’re at an exciting point in our process. All 12 playwrights have submitted the first drafts of their plays. UCF psychology students and theatre teaching artists, many of whom are students, have completed residencies at 12 high schools in Orange County, during which they guided conversations around those plays.”

Psychology graduate students on the project team are conducting research on the mental health issues covered in the plays and providing additional resources, ensuring the plays present the issues accurately and mindfully. Clinical psychology professors Brian Fisack and Steven Berman are also collaborating with teachers in the program to discuss how to address mental health issues in the classroom.

“One of the things that interests me about this program is that there is a substantial need for mental health services, especially in schools. That includes not only treatment, but also prevention and early intervention —helping students know where to go to get resources if something were to come up, or if their friends have a problem,” Fisack says. “It’s a matter of improving dialogue and decreasing stigma surrounding mental health issues. And through that, this project will help kids increase their coping skills, help them become more willing to talk about this stuff and be aware of when somebody might need help or additional services.”

Supporting Mental Health Resilience in Nursing

Strengthening Hospital Nurses’ Mental Health Resilience Through a Peer Support Training Program Using Comic Testimonials builds upon UCF RESTORES’ REACT program with researchers in the College of Nursing and the Department of Writing and Rhetoric to introduce comic therapy to healthcare professionals.

UCF RESTORES, a 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 expands that program to also include peer support training for healthcare professionals, starting with nurses.

“REACT is a course designed specifically up until this point for the first responder community. And we have created the same course and adapted it more for healthcare workers, changing up scenarios and certain situations, to separate it from first responders,” says Caylee Neisler, medical outreach coordinator at UCF RESTORES. “It’s designed to introduce, improve and strengthen peer support skills amongst peers in the healthcare setting. What we teach is how to recognize mental health, stress, injury, stress, illnesses amongst each other, and what to do in the situation that someone needed professional intervention or support.”

Blake Scott and Nathan Holic, writing and rhetoric faculty, are introducing the creation of autobiographical comics into those workshops as an innovative method of art therapy and reinforcement of peer support skills. Currently, the team is conducting research, preparing a series of comic workshops, and creating comic-based materials to incorporate into the REACT workshop’s case scenarios. The team has created five different surveys to measure the effectiveness of the training and how prepared nurses feel to help their peers following the REACT and comic workshops.

“At the end of last spring, we put together a 2 1/2-hour prototype workshop to see what it would look like to introduce comics and graphic medicine to healthcare professionals and figure out what sort of small disarming activities we could use to help nurses produce their own short autobiographical comics,” Holic says. “We were able to gather feedback about what it might feel like for somebody who is in nursing, but is not primarily an artist, to be able to go through this kind of workshop.”

According to Jean Davis ’19PhD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing, the Pabst Steinmetz Arts and Wellness Innovation Award arrived at the right time to help the team create programming that responds to mental health issues faced by healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Pabst Steinmetz award funding was helpful and very timely, because the pandemic has been a traumatic experience for many nurses who are taking care of COVID patients.” — Jean Davis ’19PhD, assistant professor

“The Pabst Steinmetz award funding was helpful and very timely, because the pandemic has been a traumatic experience for many nurses who are taking care of COVID patients,” Davis says. “This training will help nurses not only work through the issues they are facing through comic therapy, but it will also help them recognize when a peer, another nurse or healthcare provider, is having a problem and needs support, perhaps from similar trainings.”

Do you have a vision for a cross-disciplinary project to strengthen our local or national community through the arts, humanities and community wellness? Whether introducing a new initiative or building on an existing one, the 2022-23 Pabst Steinmetz Foundation Arts and Innovation Awards will grant project proposals with resources to put plans into action.

Applications for the awards are open through Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. Projects that include a program from the College of Arts and Humanities, another college at UCF and an external community organization are encouraged to apply. Awardees will be announced in late January 2023.

This year’s theme is “No Place Like Home,” building on the idea that shared experiences, access, and community engagement promote physical, mental and social wellbeing and strengthen our collective communities – the places we call home. As such, proposals should focus on collaboration with organizations, diverse communities or populations to strengthen our sense of place through arts and wellness and seek solutions to help our local, national and global communities heal.

Preview the application and view past award winners here.