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A&E Born This Way

Twin sisters Judith and Joyce Scott's life story sounds straight out of a movie.

It's a story with everything you'd imagine in an Oscar-winning movie: an idyllic childhood, heart-shattering loss, an emotional reunion followed by triumph, and resounding artistic acclaim. Above all, it's two sisters who loved each other beyond adversity and through everything. And it's 100% true.


Twin sisters Judith (right) and Joyce Scott as infants. All images via Joyce Scott, used with permission.

Joyce and Judith were born in Cincinnati in 1943. Judith had Down syndrome and Joyce did not. The sisters were loving and devoted to each other.

For the first seven years of their lives, they spent most of their days playing in a sandbox made just for the two of them. They slept in the same bed at night.

But their parents grew overwhelmed and desperate. They didn't know how to interact with Judith. Along with Down syndrome, she couldn't speak and had undiagnosed deafness. The medical community at the time knew very little about how to engage children with Down syndrome and recommended institutionalizing her. Her parents gave in.

At age 7, Judith was sent to live in a sanitarium. She remained there for the next 25 years.

During that time, her sister Joyce grew up. But she couldn't shake the memories of her sister.

By the time she was 25, Joyce had graduated from college, moved to California, and started work as a nurse specializing in care for children with developmental disabilities. She befriended the mother of one of her patients, joining her on silent meditation retreats. Five days into a six-day retreat, Joyce had an epiphany.

"I had this feeling that I was there with Judy and that our core was a central core that we shared. It was like someone turning on the light in a dark room. It became clear to me: ‘What on earth is she doing in an institution 2,000 miles away when she could be with us?'" Joyce told an interviewer last year.

Just like that, Joyce's life changed. She assumed guardianship of her sister and brought her home to California. Their family was finally whole again.

As the sisters adapted to their new life, Joyce learned about Creative Growth, an enrichment center for developmentally disabled adults.

Judith and Joyce Scott.

She began taking Judith there five days a week for painting and drawing classes, hoping something would spark her creativity.

For two years, nothing clicked. Then one day, a textile artist came to give a presentation. Judith was transfixed. She picked up two sticks and began slowly, methodically wrapping them in strips of fabric.

That wrapped bundle became her first sculpture. Over the next 18 years, she would create more than 200 more.

Judith's talent was rare and immediately apparent.

Her sculptures defy convention and definition. They're simple and intricate, colorful and muted, commanding and gentle.

The unifying feature of Judith's work is wrapped fabric. Her pieces range in size from tiny handheld sculptures that resemble dolls to huge installation pieces that cannot be moved without help. She wasn't particular about her medium, working with whatever items were around the Creative Growth studio.

Nor was there a particular rhythm to her process. She worked exactly as long as a piece took to finish — whether that was an hour, a day, a week, even a month.

An exhibition of Judith's work at a gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

Judith Scott had almost no interaction with her artworks once she finished them. The exception was when she saw them at her first art show. According to her sister, Judith wandered among the works and, one by one, kissed or hugged them. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house," recalls Joyce.

It didn't take long before people started to notice Judith's talent.

In 1999, Creative Growth held the first showing of Judith's work to coincide with the release of the first book about her. It drew worldwide attention, which meant more admirers and more books for Judith, along with documentaries and news articles.

Judith was both nonverbal and illiterate, with no way to share the inspiration behind her creations. Everything — even the names of the artworks themselves — is up to the viewer's interpretation.

"Judith's sculptures, objects, things are, to my mind, amongst the most important three-dimensional things made in the last century. There is no question or doubt about it."
Matthew Higgs, former director of exhibitions at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts

Critics have tried to define Judith's art, calling it "outsider art" or "brutalist." But her art stands on its own out of necessity. She told her story through wrapped objects and knotted fabric, rather than words and sentences.

In 2005, one evening after dinner, Judith passed away peacefully in her sister's arms. For the past 11 years, Joyce has continued to tell her story.

In addition to her work helping other artists with disabilities around the world, Joyce has joined exhibitions of Judith's work and written a book about their life together.

Many people credit Joyce with transforming her sister's life, but she disagrees. Judith, she says, was her guardian and caretaker, not the other way around.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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