Together Again – Explorations of a Fragile New Normal – Francisco Núñez’s Installation Focuses on Young People’s Mental Health Crisis

Francisco Núñez, a composer, conductor, and musical educator, founded the Young People’s Chorus in 1988 “to provide children of all ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds with a safe haven for personal and artistic growth.” For 35 years, YPC has created a community of young singers who have performed in countries all over the world, as well as in high profile local venues. YPC events win high marks for the energy, exuberance, strong voices, expert moves, and, of course, the big smiles shown by the young singers. 

Behind the scenes, however, Núñez became aware that, like so many young people in New York City, YPC members were struggling with mental health issues. He decided to put together an installation so they could share their feelings through music, poetry, voice, photography, sculpture, and more. “Together Again – Explorations of a Fragile New Normal” now on display in a gallery at 147 West 29th Street, is well timed since May has been designated Mental Health Awareness Month.

Francisco Núñez (Photo courtesy of Young People’s Chorus of New York City)

“I’ve been working for 35 years and wanted to shine a spotlight on what’s happening with young people because I see it every day,” Núñez said during a preview of the exhibition. “There’s something different going on. This [installation] allows us to do something very special in New York City. We’re hoping to draw a lot of attention to [this mental health crisis].”

Listening to Young People’s Voices (Photo courtesy of Young People’s Chorus of New York City) 

Within the exhibition, there are no news articles, no expert opinions, just the voices of young people talking about what they are experiencing – depression, anxiety, isolation, alienation, pressure, fear, and, yes, hope. Sonic sculptures, “handmade vessels of wood, metal, glass, acrylic, and audio,” line two walls of the gallery. To listen to these young voices requires bending down close to each vessel’s opening. The voices are as strong as the feelings they express.

Voices on the Screens (Photo courtesy of Young People’s Chorus of New York City)

Farther on in the installation, there are screens. Put on the headphones, tap the screen and the young person pictured will read a poem or talk about what is happening in their life. Those who are featured represent the diversity that YPC has become famous for. Yet their concerns are similar – a loss of control, being isolated during the pandemic, pressures at school, being bullied on social media. Smiles, when they appear, are fleeting, but still register a measure of hope that things might change.

“The Canon’s Project” (Photo by Woman Around Town)

In the back of the gallery, there is a film, “The Canon’s Project,” featuring music commissioned from 15 composers, including Paquito D’Rivera, Aneesa Folds, David Lang, and Paola Pristine, along with the voices of 600 choristers who recoded themselves during the height of the pandemic. What comes across in these short films is the importance of community, a sense of belonging, whether that means preparing a meal with family, dancing in the hallways of an apartment building, picking up a young sibling at school, or meeting a friend at a playground, even in the snow. 

John Hastings (Photo courtesy of Young People’s Chorus of New York City)

During a preview of the installation, invited guests had the opportunity to gain insight about the mental health crisis affecting young people. John Hastings, who taught fourth grade for 20 years and is now completing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Iona University, spoke about one of his students, a fourth grader he called Emma for privacy (not her real name). “She was a fabulous student, super smart, had lots of friends, and was really engaged in school,” he said. Two days in a row, she complained about a stomach ache and after seeing the nurse was sent home. She didn’t come back to school for the remainder of the year, a classic case of “school refusal,” Hastings said. 

“She descended into this world of anxiety and the idea of going to school, a place where she thrived, a place that she loved, became totally unthinkable for her,” he said. “She was in psychotherapy, there was medication. The next year she did come back, but it wasn’t quite the same.” Hastings said that besides feeling heartbroken for Emma, he wondered why young people who are set up to succeed, who are smart, friendly and outgoing “are falling into this giant crevice of anxiety and depression.” 

(Photo by Woman Around Town)

The CDC’s “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary and Trends Report: 2011-2021” found that in 2021, more than 42 percent of students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third experienced poor mental health. In addition, in 2021, 22 percent of students seriously considered attempting suicide and 10 percent attempted suicide. Nearly half (45 percent) of LGBQ+ students in 2021 seriously considered attempting suicide—far more than heterosexual students. Black students were more likely to attempt suicide than students of other races and ethnicities. “These data bring into focus the level of distress many students are experiencing,” according to the CDC.

(Photo by Woman Around Town)

Hastings believes that what young people need is a sense of community. “Human beings are social animals; we need to interact with each other,” he said. Although there are many children along with great schools in his suburban town, he rarely sees children playing outside. “You don’t see kids playing baseball, playing tag,” he said. “They are inside or they are doing some activity that is supervised by their parents. Kids need to hang out. Kids need to have friends, they need to do it in person. They are never going to give up their phones, video games will always be there. But studies have shown that interconnection with people, hanging out, is a protective factor against the bad influence of all the other stuff.”

That’s where an organization like the Young People’s Chorus comes in. “With the YPC, they feel like that’s a home to them,” Hastings said. “They show up, Francisco is going to give them a big smile and say hello to them. All those places where they can feel connected  are the places that are going to help them feel better and make them feel happy as adults.”

Francisco Núñez (Photo courtesy of Young People’s Chorus of New York City)

Hastings, who sings in the other group Núñez conducts, the all-male University Glee Club, said that singing is “a fantastic thing to do. I started looking up all the advantages and there are too many to list. It lowers your cortisol level, it increases endorphins, it gives you community and a sense of belonging. And that is the essence of what we need to create for our kids. And that is the essence of what all of us who are members of the UGC feel about this wonderful organization. We’re lucky enough to have Francisco as part of it. So the message is community, connection, human connection.” 

Hastings shared two important numbers: call 988, where a young person or an adult can talk with someone at the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.“For kids who don’t like to talk on the phone, they can text 741741 and someone will text you right back,” he said. “Kids need to know this information for themselves, for their friends, and you need to know it.”

For more information, go to the website for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

Top photo: Courtesy of Young People’s Chorus of New York City)

About Charlene Giannetti (689 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.