ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — Katie Whysong loved to paint. It was her way of expressing herself.
“She was a quiet, gentle soul of a kid,” said Katie’s dad, Todd Whysong. “But she would open up around us and she was funny with a soft, sweet laugh,” said Alisa Whysong, Katie’s mother by marriage.
Those are memories the Whysongs cherish of their daughter, Katie. But the warmhearted girl they knew struggled with mental health issues, starting in seventh grade, and was diagnosed with depression.
“We had a therapist for her, she went through the program and she was treated and seemed to be much better,” said Todd Whysong.
But the Whysongs lost Katie to suicide last year when she was in ninth grade at Fox Chapel Area High School. A difficult topic for any family, the Whysongs had to choose if they wanted to talk about Katie’s death.
“We decided to talk about it and I think it’s made a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” said Alisa Whysong.
Part of the evidence is on the walls at Shaler Area High School: dozens and dozens of hand-painted pictures, with one of six screen-printed messages:
It’s okay not to be okay
You are not alone
Never, ever give up
Hold onto hope
No feeling is final
“Seeing it in person, wow, it’s all I can say,” said Todd Whysong.
“It’s profound. It is definitely moving. I know for me, it leaves me speechless,” said Alisa Whysong.
The Whysongs started the Positive Painting Project, a program that gets people to paint the pictures, which are then screen-printed with the six phrases pertaining to mental health. They’re hung in the community where they were painted or in the schools of the students who painted them.
“When a student wasn’t having a good day or was struggling, they would go to the restroom, said Alisa Whysong. “That’s what Katie’s vision was: that these messages would be there, to remind them that they’re not alone.”
Because the idea for the paintings actually came from Katie before her death.
Todd Whysongs says she had the idea to put art in places to help positively impact kids’ mental health, but then the pandemic hit and she didn’t get to do it. But now her parents are.
“You can feel her working through you sometimes,” said Todd Whysongs. “This idea, having been hers to begin with, I just wish she would be here to see it come to fruition.”
“I find it to be very courageous, very brave and very selfless to decide to use this very tragic situation and to say, ‘I don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s kid,’” said Elizabeth Dunn, Shaler Area School Board Member and parent.
Breaking mental illness stigma through painting is something Dunn is all for. She’s humbled to see the more than 100 paintings that teachers and students did last school year. Each one has Katie’s art signature screen-printed on it, which was very important to her parents. It helps keep her part of the painting and also makes the paintings recognizable.
“Everybody knows that’s a Katie painting,” said Catlyn DiPasquale, Shaler Area High School teacher and Light Education Initiative coordinator.
She brought the Positive Painting Project to Shaler Area High School last year and planned it to be a mental break during midterms.
“They got to come and relieve some stress and paint and learn about the cause and Katie and the resources that are out there for them too,” said DiPasquale.
Shaler grad Alyssa Hillwig painted one.
“There was no pressure for me to perform well on a test. It was just me doing what my brain wanted me to do and it was just an all-around wonderful experience,” said Alyssa.
A few months later, after the Whysongs screen-printed the paintings, DiPasquale put up an installation of them in the hallway.
“They walk by it every day so it’s still impactful,” said DiPasquale. “It still reminds them that people are here for them, they care about them, they matter.”
That’s a message the Whysongs can’t stress enough. And they also want you to know this:
“There’s help out there, there’s help available,” said Todd Whysong. “Anyone who considered taking their own life understands how precious life is and the world needs more people like you, not less.”
The Positive Painting Project is in 16 schools in 13 school districts across Allegheny, Westmoreland and Butler counties. The Whysongs estimate that people have painted 1,000-2,000 paintings since the project started less than a year ago.
If you’d like more information on the Positive Painting Project, visit paintpositive.org. There’s also an art scholarship created in Katie Whysong’s name: kwscholarship.org
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