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Local Volcom #ThisFirst Winner is Using Art to Combat the Stigma of Mental Illness

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Drexel chapter.

Earlier this year, Volcom, a Southern California-based lifestyle brand and sports company, sought out talented individuals who wanted to prioritize their passions and get paid for it! Their #ThisFirst contest asked those who entered to answer the question: “What’s your ‘this’ and what would it mean for you to put #ThisFirst?” Over 10,000 passionate people entered the contest, with only 15 winners chosen in total: five national winners and ten global winners, all with unique passions, from music, to cliff jumping, and much more. 

For 23-year old Philly native, Sara Becker, using art to advocate for mental health was her ‘this.’ Growing up with a father who has schizophrenia forced Sara to combat society’s harmful ideas about mental illness, and to challenge her perception of her father’s actions.  


Sara Becker, Image Courtesy of Volcom

When Sara saw the call for submissions to #ThisFirst on Facebook, she had just graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a B.A. in Art Studio. “I had confidence in myself, but everyone always says, ‘Oh, you can’t get a career in art very easily.’” So when Sara decided to put together her submission video, she never imagined that her video would be the one Volcom picked.

Sara has her own struggles with anxiety, and she found herself using her art as a coping mechanism. Although anxiety would often keep her awake, Sara said, “There was this thing that would cause me to wake up in the middle of the night and just want to go into the studio and work, and it was creating art that really made me feel that I was accomplishing something through being awake during the anxiety.” 

The desire to understand her father as well as her own self culminated in her Father Figures series. In the series, Sara created a fictional cacti jelly creature as a representation of the lessons she learned from interacting with her father. She wrote in her concept for the series, “Both the cacti and the jellyfish are made up of almost completely water; [they] hurt others mindlessly as it is their nature to protect themselves and continue living.” 

Not everyone with a mental illness has compatible needs. While one person could isolate themselves, another might seek attention. Of her art, Sara said, “It made me kind of like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve been this harsh on my dad when he’s the person who was going through these same things.’” It was a realization that I need to stop being like, ‘Oh, he’s doing that to me,’ and start thinking about how I’m reacting.” 

Radical empathy is one of the most powerful forces in advocating for mental health—Once we begin to think about what others are going through, we have a greater capacity for understanding. Although Sara initially struggled to understand her father, by considering the reasoning behind his actions, she was able to reframe her thinking. 

On the day we spoke, Sara was preparing to head to Wichita for her Perceptions of Others installation, made possible by Volcom. 

“That was the project that really started the origami and dimensional printing, and my biggest message was to open people’s eyes…you look at this installation and they all look the same, but then if you look into the sculpture, they’re all different values.” 

At the heart of Sara’s work is her compassion for others. Although it may appear that someone doesn’t struggle on the outside, every person has their own issues on the inside. 

Sara’s paper folding is also a coping mechanism. “For me to make, it’s extremely meditative because I was never able to just sit and meditate; I needed to be doing something. So, through me explaining that, it would help other people to also calm the mind.” 

She hopes that this concept can help others cope with the symptoms of their mental illness.

“I would love to maybe teach an origami paper folding workshop and have the proceeds go toward research about schizophrenia or something I’m passionate about.”  So, what’s next for Sara?

Sara has just gotten a membership at a local print shop, Second State Press, and started two paper sculptures as well as a drawing that she is going to be printing.

Now that she has had more time to reflect, Sara is revisiting her Father Figures series. Mike Aho, the Global Creative Director at Volcom, has connections with a paper maker in Austin, Texas who repurposes old scraps of paper and creates new pieces of paper. Sara is going to use the pieces from her series by ripping up the initial pieces and repurposing them into pieces of paper for her to use on a new project. “The Father Figures series was beneficial to my career, but I kind of wanted to destroy it,” Sara said. 

She is also going to continue her work through mental health advocacy. “I’d really like to visit mental health institutions – just do anything I can do to absorb as much information as possible. And that’s really what I found most rewarding about my art, and just finding out how similar we are when we really hear each individual story. There can be connections.” 

Sara is off to a great start. As someone who has struggled with mental illness, I found myself deeply connecting to her work. The more people talking about mental health, the less stigma there will be around these issues. 

For our readers, Sara stressed the importance of finding your ‘this.’ “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that goes along with being in college, and it seems like everyone has something they like to do to relieve stress. And sometimes the thing you really like to do might be embarrassing… so my advice is to find whatever gives you solace and relieves you of the trains going around and around in your brain, and do that, no matter what anybody thinks.” 

To continue following Sara’s story, check out her Instagram (@sarabeckerisrad), and visit http://www.volcom.com/thisfirst for more information about the contest! 

All of the #ThisFirst winners: 


  1. Robert Wall: A cliff jumper from Northern California pioneering a new sport
  2. Canarus Leon: A dancer out to change the world from Houston
  3. Tim Briggs: An environmentalist with a love for the ocean from Boston
  4. Sara Becker: An artist changing the stigma of mental illness from Philadelphia
  5. Brandon Clements: A music storyteller and podcaster interviewing his idols from Houston  


  1. Chen Yu Ching: A charity founder in Taiwan
  2. Tylah Kerr: A musician from Australia
  3. Atsushi Miki: A drummer from Japan
  4. Simón Sepulveda: A designer who brings awareness to social issues from Chile
  5. Fabian Chama: A street performer from Costa Rica
  6. Carolina Paz: A painter promoting social work through art from Peru
  7. Joanna Painter: A charcoal artist from U.K.
  8. Anaïs Chausse: An obstacle course racer from France
  9. Angel Perez Ortega: A fake brand commercial director from Spain
  10. Steffen Tuermer: A photographer from Germany


Caitlin is a senior at Drexel University in a dual degree BA/MA program in English and publishing. She is passionate about ending mental health stigma, fighting for LGBT rights and advocating for feminism.
Her Campus Drexel contributor.