There are two sides to every story and two sides of every mask. Third-year Colorado State University student, Kayla Wong, has gone to great lengths to expose this truth.
As the mastermind behind “Remove the Masks,” a project which started as just a class assignment, Wong has now transformed her passion into a life mission to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention.
Wong is a communication studies major with a minor in arts leadership and administration through LEAP Institute for the Arts. In the fall of 2014, Wong took a LEAP course, Advocacy in the Visual and Performing Arts, which ultimately changed her own.
Wong and her fellow classmates were assigned to take the elements learned in class and apply them to a final project, which called for students to use any form of the arts to advocate for a social cause.
“When I heard about the assignment, the first thought I had was suicide prevention. I am passionate about suicide and mental health awareness/prevention, but I know that it is a taboo, scary topic in society. I did not want to turn people away, so I had to find an easier way to have the conversation,” Wong said.
This is when “Remove the Masks” came to mind. She wanted to create an opportunity for people to reflect on the difference between what they present to society compared to what thoughts and feelings they keep within.
“Every person has an identity that is more than skin deep,” Wong said. “Every person has a story that the world does not allow them to share because of stigmas. This suppression of emotions can lead to mental health concerns and later suicidal thoughts or actions.” As a result, she scoured through campus and the greater Fort Collins community looking for participants to help facilitate the project, and more broadly, the conversation surrounding mental health.
Wong provided willing participants with paper masks to express the two sides of themselves. On one side, they wrote what they outwardly display. On the other side, they wrote what most people don’t see. Wong then posted these anonymous masks to the Facebook page she created.
“People responded positively to the project and had no problems with me posting them on social media. I made sure to stay vague on where the masks were coming from so that no one could track them back to the participant,” she said.
After Wong gave her final presentation on the assignment to the class, her project came to a standstill. That was until the following winter break when her Facebook page started to receive considerable attention.
“People started to message this Facebook page which is not connected with my personal page. They were sharing their stories and reaching out for support. It was then that I realized how great of a need there was for a safe space to engage in conversation around this topic,” she said. Consequently, Wong created a website and other social media for the project.
Since then, her passion has continued to flourish and her recognition has continued to increase. Wong was contacted by The Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Larimer County and asked to be involved in the Taking Strides to Save Lives and Remembrance Walk 5k which was held April 4 of this year.
She has presented in residence halls and elementary schools, and her efforts have even spread to the broader CSU campus. In addition, she currently serves as the Vice-President of the Conscious Student Alliance club here on campus, which is an organization that seeks to promote the idea that mental health is just as vital as physical health.
Most recently, Wong was one of two students who were awarded the Eric Becker Memorial Scholarship this Fall. “From the generosity given to me by the Becker Family, I am able to concentrate on what is important to me, my education and changing the world,” she said. “My journey is a process and the Eric Becker Memorial scholarship is part of it.”
In terms of the future, Wong plans to graduate one semester early, but hopes to continue to weave the mission of “Remove the Masks” throughout her life. “My masks project is something I want to take with me into graduate school. I want to focus on mental health within college communities for my thesis and then later use what I learn in my profession,” she said. “I want every individual to feel safe; physically, mentally, and emotionally no matter where they are in life. I feel I can do this through being a student affairs professional.”
Based on the success she’s accomplished as just an undergrad, it’s safe to say that Wong has an even brighter future ahead and that her passion will continue to brighten the increasing number of lives that she’s able to reach.