Supporting Youth Mental Health & Education Through Art

The Cause

Participation in the arts has been found to reduce symptoms associated with depression and anxiety; and promote adaptivity and resiliency. After months of uncertainty and social isolation in responding to COVID-19, art may help to strengthen skills to navigate the ‘mental health pandemic’ that healthcare professionals are warning of looming in the future. Unfortunately, access to the arts is not equitable in all areas of Alberta-- preliminary conversations around creating more artistic spaces for the Region of Wood Buffalo had started at the municipal level, but projects were put on hold to focus on public safety in adapting to the pandemic.

Seeing that the need still exists, the founders of Greenlight Creative - who both grew up in Fort McMurray- seek to offer a no-cost creative outlet for high school students. This project would be offered in two parts through collaboration with the Ft. McMurray Catholic School District (FMCSD), the Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and would connect participants with the rich history and important teachings of neighbouring Dene, Cree, and Metis communities.

Part 1: Teachers involved in the program would educate students about the history and significance of art to local Indigenous and Metis communities. Teachings would be focused on a specific topic each month, woven in with regular coursework, and would frame the importance of art as a means of storytelling, transmission of culture, healing, and shared experience.

Part 2: Outside of their classwork, students would be provided with supplies to create the art they are learning about. Sessions would be led and informed by local Indigenous leaders. Leaders would help students create dreamcatchers and inuksuit, among other projects. Each session would feature one art piece, with 4 sessions across 4 consecutive months offered to the same student cohort (in line with class topics). By matching practice with education, students are afforded the opportunity to develop important knowledge and creative capacity around historically and culturally significant art pieces.

Lunch would also be provided on the practical session days, as many of the students who attend the school are also from low-income families.

The intention is to offer this project in-person. In the event of a return to mandatory at-home learning, art kits would be hand-delivered to all students’ homes by members of the Greenlight team; students would then join a scheduled virtual session.

Who Will it Benefit?

Pre-pandemic, there was evidence to suggest that nearly half of the global population will experience a mental health issue at some point in their life including anxiety; depression and other mood disorders; substance abuse issues; eating disorders, and others. Youth ages 12 to 24 in particular are among the most underserved populations in regards to mental health and addictions in the province, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association Alberta. Major factors in the development of mental health issues in youth include isolation, financial precarity, and a world that feels unstable and uncertain-- factors that would be exacerbated by the pandemic. In a recent study into the impact of COVID-19 involving of over 1,000 otherwise healthy school-aged children, Sickkids found that youth and adolescents experienced a deterioration on a number of mental health domains including depression (37.6%), anxiety (38.7%), and attention span (40.8%).

This project will directly benefit a minimum of 75 ethnically diverse high school-aged students (15-18 years old) across Grades 10, 11, and 12 at the Father Patrick Mercredi Community High School in Fort McMurray-- it will further their education; offer a creative outlet; and help to connect them to the community. It will also assist in the development and maintenance of positive mental health, as art and art therapy have been correlated with reducing levels of anxiety and depression, and increasing cognitive functioning and adaptive responses to stress. While not all students in a classroom may participate in the practical art sessions (due to personal preference and/or project funding limitations), all students in classrooms involved with the project will benefit from the knowledge shared by teachers and educators.

Art is especially significant in supporting the health and wellbeing of Indigenous and Metis youth, as it acts as “a therapy, a protective factor, and creative expression for community well-being” according to the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health. Father Patrick Mercredi Community High School has the highest number of Indigenous students in the community-- the teachings and art are especially significant to this student population.