Canvas The Change: MSUM Students Paint Over Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

Students at Minnesota State University Moorhead used their creativity to brush away the stigma surrounding mental health. The event, Canvas the Change, was created by five MSUM seniors studying public relations as part of an awareness campaign called MSUM 4 Change.

“We are doing this public relations campaign to spread awareness about mental and emotional health,” says Chelsea Wood, one of the event’s coordinators. “We want to see where students are in terms of awareness and educate them about how mental and emotional health affects their daily lives. We’re also doing this to promote the nonprofit organization, the Campaign to Change Direction.”

Students painting at MSUM 4 Change’s event, Canvas the Change.

More than 30 students attended the event on Tues., Feb. 21.

“We have the students use their creativity to generate pictures on canvas based on what they feel when they think of the five signs of emotional suffering,” says co-coordinator Lindsey O’Driscoll. “We kicked off our campaign here on campus with this event, and it was amazing.”

Part of the campaign is focused on promoting the nonprofit organization, Campaign to Change Direction, and its pledge to know the five signs of emotional suffering: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, decline in personal care and hopelessness.

“It’s important to know the five signs because then you can recognize them in others and also in yourself. From there you can get the professional help that is out there,” Wood says.

One of the attendees at Canvas the Change was former MSUM student Amy Backus, a database resource specialist at First Link in Fargo. She says she thinks the campaign is a fun way to raise awareness while shedding light on an important topic.

“I think it is good for people to know how to identify between is this person having a bad day or is this an actual problem that they should alert someone of or get help?” Backus says. “Especially in my line of work a lot of people call and say, ‘Hey, I think my friend might be suicidal; what do I do?’ So many people are afraid to ask the question, ‘Are you okay?’ No one likes to think it could happen to someone they know until it does.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, approximately one in five adults in the U.S.—or 18.5 percent—experiences mental illness in a given year.

Backus says she was told that approximately “half to three-fourths of our population has some form of mental illness. But because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, people don’t want to talk about it or they don’t want to go in and get diagnosed because that would mean there’s ‘something wrong with them’ or they’re an ‘outsider’ even though it’s clearly a more common issue than people realize,” she says. She adds that some people also don’t go in to get help because they’re afraid of losing their spouse, jobs or friends and family.

Event Coordinator Chelsea Wood takes a break to paint a canvas.

Students who attended the event say it was a nice way to relax, get creative and educate themselves about emotional well-being.

“I think it’s great! Good atmosphere, lots of fun and it’s a great way to talk about the stigma around mental health,” says MSUM student Dorothy Pihlaja. “I think learning about the five signs is important because you should always be on the lookout for them. You never know who could be dealing with mental health issues. Learning the signs could help save someone.”

The MSUM 4 Change Campaign wraps up on March 15. Until then, Wood says there are plenty of opportunities for students to participate and take the pledge to know the five signs.

“The topic of emotional health needs to be normalized. We want students to know that having a mental health condition is nothing to hide,” Wood says. “They’re not ‘abnormal’ because of it. We want students to know what resources they have in their area if they do think they’re emotionally suffering.”

MSUM students Courtney O’Reilly, Emma Johnson and Shayna Smith (left to right) pose with their canvasses.

The group will be collecting pledges at tables around campus during the next few weeks. Anyone who wants to take the pledge on their own time can visit Once you’ve taken the pledge, O’Driscoll says you can post about it on social media using the hashtag, #5signhigh5 or mention @MSUM4Change for a chance to win a ‘mental health care kit.’