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Cura in Mind: Student Performer Helps Others Incorporate Wellness Into Creative Life

03/27/2020

Artist Anni Albers once said, “Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.”

Sophomore Reed McLean (front) stretches during a Make Dark Days Brighter movement class.

SLU student Reed McLean (front) stretches during a Make Dark Days Brighter movement class. She spearheaded the new program to help Billikens involved in the creative and performing arts incorporate wellness into their personal and professional lives during a December 2019 workshop. SLU file photo by Amelia Flood

For students in Saint Louis University’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts, a new student-led initiative is ensuring that Billikens who tread the boards and who create masterpieces attend their happiness and physical, mental and creative well-being.

Reed McLean, a junior majoring in musical theatre performance and economics, has spearheaded the department’s new “Make Dark Days Brighter” program, a series of workshops focused on wellness for students involved in the creative arts.

The program is one of a host of efforts underway around SLU’s campus that aims to support students’ as whole people in the spirit of cura personalis.

Nationally, the incidence and awareness of mental health and wellness issues has increased on college campuses. The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others, has highlighted the rise in student mental health needs in recent years.

“You’re cultivating the mind, body and spirit to perform, to do your craft,” McLean said. “The demands of this craft aren’t always visible and it can be exhausting. It’s utilizing human emotions and that takes a toll. But you don’t want to run dry, you don’t want to run out.”

Caring for Self to Create the Extraordinary

After coming to SLU from Birmingham, Alabama, McLean threw herself into SLU life, performing with University Theatre and serving her fellow Billikens as a SLU 101 leader in the summer of 2019.

A performer since age 10, she was used to the grind of rehearsals and performances, of having to “on” and en pointe constantly.

“It was the most fun I’d ever had, but it was exhausting,” McLean recalled.

Students take part in a barre class in a studio in Xavier Hall as part of Make Dark Days Brighter.

Students take part in a barre class in January in a studio in Xavier Hall as part of Make Dark Days Brighter in January 2020. Submitted file photo

After returning briefly home during the summer of 2019, she dedicated time for self-care, encouraged by her parents, particularly her mother, a pilates instructor.

Before returning to campus for the fall 2019 semester, McLean began contemplating how to incorporate the University’s core value – cura personalis, or care of the whole person – into her educational life at SLU and future career beyond campus. But she wanted her peers to have the same opportunity.

McLean began planning a fine and performing arts wellness program, made a video presentation about it and shared it with her department’s leaders and faculty.

“Care for the entire person is not something that’s talked about enough, especially in the performing arts,” she said.

Supported by the faculty in her department, particularly associate professor Nancy Bell, MFA, and assistant professor Stephanie Tennill, M.M., McLean launched Make Dark Days Brighter.

You’re cultivating the mind, body and spirit to perform, to do your craft. 

Reed McLean, founder, Make Dark Days Brighter

The program focuses on five aspects of wellness, from the spiritual to nutrition.

Make Dark Days Brighter received support from the Student Government Association (SGA) as well as the Department of Campus Recreation and Wellness, and hosted movement workshops and group dance classes in its first term.

At a December 2019 dance and movement class led by alumna Molly Meyer (A&S ’18) 2018), students worked on breath control, dance moves for auditions, and ways of moving to relax and strengthen their bodies.

Sixteen students took part in a January 2020 movement class also led by Meyer, readying for a new semester of rehearsals and performances. Students who attended, McLean said, said the sessions have helped reduce their stress levels, particularly due to the supportive atmosphere Make Dark Days Brighter fosters.

Adapting to Create an Atmosphere of Care in a Crisis

Since the onset of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the mission of Make Dark Days Brighter has become even more necessary, McLean said.

In May 2020, Barrett Wilbert Weed, a Broadway star most notable for originating Veronica in Heathers: The Musical and Janice in Mean Girls: The Musical, spoke at a Zoom session hosted by Her Story Branding about her strategies for managing anxiety while working in the creative world, an effort supported by Make Dark Days Brighter.

In August 2020, Tower Grove pilates instructor Emily Freeman gave a 50-minute online workshop open to all members of the SLU community pertaining to mask breathing techniques and concepts for anxiety and stress management.

A Zoom gathering hosted by Make Dark Days Brighter

A Zoom gathering hosted by Make Dark Days Brighter after the SLU community dispersed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Submitted photo

Students who attended, McLean said, said the sessions have helped reduce their stress levels, particularly due to the supportive atmosphere Make Dark Days Brighter fosters.

The goal of the program's each session, McLean said, is to teach students the skills to live a balanced creative, personal and professional life as students and later in the working world. 

“It’s all keeping in mind the future where you can take this and apply it to your future craft,” she explained. “This is establishing healthy, mindful habits to help you learn to love yourself because you will always be a person first.”

Get involved and follow the project on Instagram (@makedarkdaysbrighter) or on Facebook.

Alumna Molly Meyer (A&S '18) (front) and sophomore Reed McLean (back) stretch as part of a Make Dark Days Brighter movement class.

(Front) Alumna Molly Meyer (A&S '18) leads current SLU student Reed McLean and other students through a stretch akin to a warrior pose as part of a Make Dark Days Brighter movement class Meyer taught in December 2019. SLU file photo by Amelia Flood

In Reed’s Words

Junior Reed McLean.

I have lived my whole life on the go: I go to class, I go to rehearsal, I go to work, I go to the gym, I go, I go, and I go. I have been zooming around before zoom was a thing. Very rarely do I ever stop going.

It wasn’t until July 2019 when I suddenly had nowhere to go. Long before COVID-19, I was forced to stop. I stopped, and I hit a dark place. In the midst of my constant hustle-and-bustle, I failed to neglect something extremely important: myself.

While maintaining my grades, relationships and other obligations, I had seriously failed to dedicate time to my personal well-being. Gradually, I incorporated personal care for my mind, body, and spirit into my lifestyle. This is a rejuvenating lifestyle that I believe everyone is entitled to have.

And so, Make Dark Days Brighter was born because I know what it’s like to feel like you’re in a dark place with nowhere to go. Through this health and wellness initiative, we strive for cura personalis and solidarity with one another, no matter where we go.


Nationally and at home here at SLU, mental health and wellness issues have become increasingly visible. In the spirit of cura personalis, the University community's call to  “care for the individual person” and to respect the dignity of each person as a child of God, Cura in Mind, a limited series, is shining a light on the ways that Billikens are helping students cope, manage and thrive mentally and emotionally on campus.

The series aims to give those working on mental health issues on campus a chance to reach out to let Billikens know that there are friends, faculty and staff members who are here to help.

Story by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications.