A University of Arkansas at Little Rock student is promoting mental health awareness with one inspirational smiley-faced mug at a time.
Emilia Rak, a junior social work major, knows what it’s like to live with mental health disorders and the challenges and stigma that can come from people who don’t understand.
“I’ve struggled with mental health issues for several years, and I would become severely depressed,” Rak said. “I had a very good friend, Renee. Her mother passed away a few years ago. She loved coffee, so at her funeral they had a coffee bar. Often, when I was feeling depressed, Renee told me that I had to have a coffee date with her mom in the morning. It was my promise not to harm myself until morning. For many years, my promise to my good friend was the only thing that kept me alive.”
Years later, when Rak’s friend continued to struggle with her mother’s death, she began making mugs for her friends who needed a boost to their spirits. The mugs, which she makes at The Painted Pig in Little Rock, are hand-painted with bright colors, smiley faces, and inspirational phrases.
“I just started making mugs and giving them to friends of mine who I thought were having a hard time. I love making presents for people,” she said. “While I was doing this, I was engaged in my own art therapy. The mugs take between 2-6 hours a piece to paint. While I was making mugs, there was no room for dark thoughts or to question my own self-worth.”
When Rak received a Signature Experience Award from UA Little Rock last fall, she was grateful for the opportunity to take her project further.
“People gave me feedback that my gift saved them from having a bad day or that this simple gift really had an impact in my life,” she said. “The opportunity came up to get the award, and I wanted to really make a difference with the award. I created the website (https://changeyourdays.org) and started providing content for my website and social media.”
Rak was one of more than 100 UA Little Rock students who received a $1,000 grant to conduct original research, creative works, and community service projects this semester as part of the Signature Experience Award program. Her faculty mentor is Dr. David Namir, professor of social work. She will present her research at the Research and Creativity in the Rock event on April 18 in the Jack Stephens Center.
Along with her website, Rak began making more mugs with the goal of delivering them to places that promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention. She gave mugs to the Auxiliary to Arkansas State Hospital, Inc. to support their art therapy program, Creative Expressions, as well as the electroconvulsive therapy suite at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Psychiatric Research Institute. She also presented mugs to her classmates in her social work classes and asked them to please “pay it forward” by either gifting the mug to someone who was struggling or to keep the gift and “pay it forward” by having a positive, productive day that started with a smile.
Rak feels the mugs will especially help people with depression and other mental health disorders as well as people who have suffered a major loss in life.
“When you wake up, you feel like you have nothing to keep you motivated,” she said. “All you have to do is look at this mug to make you feel better. People have told me that the mugs make them smile and laugh. It’s been proven that if you physically smile, you feel better. This is a simple way for me to address a serious health problem.”
Rak will continue to provide mugs and is accepting orders from anyone who would like a mug, but she would like to prioritize organizations that promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
“I truly enjoy making people happy,” Rak said. “This is something that is simple and effective. I’ve opened aGoFundMe page for anyone who would like to donate, and I’d like to keep doing this for as long as I can.”
Rak is on track to graduate in May 2020. She hopes to give back by working as a social worker and eventually an art therapist.
“This started out as art therapy, and this is why I am enthused about my future career because I know it works,” Rak said. “I want to make an impact in any way I can. Who knows? I might be painting mugs until I’m 110 years old.”
In the upper right photo, Emilia Rak pets her service dog, Rooster The King of the Universe. Photo by Benjamin Krain.