Cleveland, OH,
12:30 PM

SAFE Project Supports Mental Health Needs of Students through the Arts

Every high school student already faces the intense anxiety that comes with adolescence, classwork, relationships and life outside of school. Now imagine adding even more stress, from trauma, from poverty, from the other adversities that so many students in Cleveland face.

The result, too often, is despair, pulling our city’s children into depression, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide.

When MetroHealth’s School Health Program began screening students at John Adams and Lincoln West high schools in 2016-2017, that’s the grim reality they found.

It was clear that our teens needed interventional care and support so they could navigate serious mental health challenges, learn how to work through their anxiety and trauma, and find healthy outlets for their emotions.

It was clear to the MetroHealth School Health Program team that they needed to do more.

Lisa Ramirez, PhD, director of Community and Behavioral Health, had a remarkable idea: add an arts-based component to the program that could normalize and validate kids’ anxieties and provide a supportive, healthy and, yes, fun outlet for them.

She even had a name: the Students Are Free to Express (SAFE) Project.

“It’s an antidote for adversity,” Dr. Ramirez said. “This lets kids hit the pause button on their toxic stress. It lets children be children.”

The program started as a pilot for ninth-graders at John Adam High School and soon expanded to two additional high schools: Lincoln-West School of Science and Health at MetroHealth and Lincoln-West School of Global Studies. Harvey Rice Wraparound elementary began offering SAFE to the youngest students.

SAFE’s curriculum is a model of psychologically informed primary prevention. Each student is introduced to tools that promote individual and community resilience, encourage emotional awareness, validate and normalize their experiences, and instill hope to disrupt the cycle of distress.

But to the kids, it’s not so technical, because it is done through visual- and performance-arts-based explorations. They simply find themselves immersed in the arts, experiencing music, dance, theater, visual arts, poetry, drum circles and more. They connect with their classmates, the program’s visiting artists and, most important, themselves, developing lifelong tools to express their feelings, handle their stress and cope with life’s challenges.

JoAnn and Bob Glick’s gift makes it possible for the SAFE Project to recruit a full-time evaluation assistant and program coordinator; develop evaluation metrics; increase the pool of visiting professional artists; provide education presentations and workshops for families; and expand programming to include more students at each school.

The eventual goal is to expand SAFE to all grades at each school.

Providers hope to enhance trauma-informed training for teachers, staff and artists; develop coordination between entities referring children; and streamline collaboration among MetroHealth, community mental health agencies and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

“The Glicks’ support has given life to our idea,” said Dr. Ramirez. “The funds will allow us to evaluate and improve SAFE. More students are going to be able to experience the life-changing benefits of this special program.”

About the MetroHealth System

Founded in 1837, MetroHealth is leading the way to a healthier you and a healthier community through service, teaching, discovery, and teamwork. Cuyahoga County’s public, safety-net hospital system, MetroHealth meets people where they are, providing care through five hospitals, four emergency departments and more than 20 health centers. Each day, our nearly 9,000 employees focus on providing our community with equitable healthcare — through patient-focused research, access to care, and support services — that seeks to eradicate health disparities rooted in systematic barriers. For more information, visit