GRAY — High school hasn’t always been easy for G-NG graduating senior Caitlin Gora, particularly between her sophomore and junior years, when she was briefly hospitalized after harming herself through cutting.

“I struggled really bad, and I hid it from my parents. I wore bracelets, I was wearing long-sleeved shirts. I tried my best to hide it,” said Gora, who spoke about her experiences during an interview at the school.

Gora’s openness is remarkable given the personal roller coaster and self-doubt that she has experienced in the past. The way she has rebounded and worked to help others dealing with their own mental health trials has at least one member of the school guidance office calling her a “rock star.”

When the 17-year-old, who lives in New Gloucester with her mother and stepfather, Andrea and Edson Peaslee, graduates with her classmates Saturday, June 10, at the Cross Insurance Center in Portland, she will do so with a new strength she has found through her love of art. And, not only does she look to raise awareness through her work, she is eyeing a career as an art therapist to help others find healing through the arts.

“It gave me a place to take out my feelings and my emotions, and mainly what my theme is around my art is getting awareness and showing people that mental illness is a real problem in the world, and people really need to take it seriously,” she explained.

“I really wanted it to hit people. I didn’t want to hold back,” she added.

Gora’s immersion in the arts didn’t start until freshman year, but that passion was there to help get her through difficult times.

“Before freshman year, I actually hated art. But then (high school art teacher) Ms. Gould, she really got me into it,” Gora said. “And ever since then, I fell in love with it.”

Gora says that her primary focus is drawing portraits, but that she paints as well and took a ceramics class this year. She has taken as many art classes as she can.

“I love doing portraits. I don’t know what it is,” she said. “But I like capturing peoples faces and their emotions.”

Gora was accepted into the Maine College of Art  in December, the only school to which she originally applied. But she says that financial realities have set in, and she now plans to attend Southern Maine Community College in South Portland for her first two years of college and then transfer to MECA to finish her degree. She is applying to scholarships, including several through the high school.

The idea of becoming an art therapist first came to Gora while speaking with her own therapist at the time. She realized that she could use her experiences and interests to help others navigate the difficulties of mental illness. She would like to work with middle- and high school students, and possibly adults.

“It’s been my savior,” she says about art. “After I got help, I wanted to help others. And putting those two things that I love together just kind of makes sense to me.”

Once she was on the road to recovery, she wanted others to understand more about the trappings of mental illness.

“I actually wrote a three-page letter to anyone,” Gora said. “I was just sending it out to any organization I could. And then NAMI wrote me back.”

She received a response from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, which jump-started her involvement with the Augusta-based organization.

“She very quickly became engaged,” said NAMI Maine executive director Jenna Mehnert, who responded to Gora’s letter and then met with her. “She really made significant efforts to have her voice be heard, and when given the opportunity to engage in building awareness and addressing stigma, she absolutely took that opportunity.”

Gora became a member of NAMI’s Youth and Young Adults Adviosry Council, which engages young people on issues of mental health and stigma. Gora also said she was voted the group’s art and education director.

Mehnert said that having someone share their own story can be a powerful way of raising awareness.

“We can talk theoretically or statistically about different issues, but when you talk to a person who has had a specific lived experience – a mental health challenge – having them sort of raise their perspective and give voice to that can be pretty significant in helping to address stigma,” Mehnert said.

The experience has given Gora perspective on the important of asking for help.

“I feel like bottling it up is just making it worse,” Gora said. “And there are actual people out there who want to help, who have gone through the same thing.”

“It’s cliche, but it does get better. It doesn’t last forever, you can get better, it just takes a lot of time and effort,” she continued.

Gora says that she’s had people ask if she would change anything about her journey.

“Everything that has happened to me, even though it’s been horrible, has gotten me to where I am right now. And I would’t be here if I didn’t have those people who helped me,” she said, stressing how important her family is to her.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Gray-New Gloucester senior Caitlin Gora with a portrait she’s working on as a birthday present for her younger sister, Christianne Peaslee. Gora says that family is very important to her.

Caitlin Gora with some of her work in the high school’s art room.

A series of pen drawings by Caitlin Gora.

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