Raising young students’ awareness about mental health issues through the arts

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This spring Workman Arts changed more than 3300Ontariostudents’ opinions about mental health issues.

Those students, in grades 4 to 8, attended special free performances of Workman Arts’ presentation of the play, Edward the “Crazy Man” followed by facilitated panel discussions.

Working in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Workman Arts is a not-for-profit professional arts company whose mission is to support aspiring, emerging and established artists with mental illness and addiction issues who are committed to developing and refining their art form and promoting a greater understanding of those issues through film, theatre, visual art, music and the literary arts.

Based on the book Edward the “Crazy Man” written and illustrated by Marie Day, the play tells a heartwarming story of a special friendship between a boy and a homeless man with schizophrenia. It addresses in an engaging and accessible way, difficult yet important issues related to homelessness, mental health, prejudice, discrimination, the impact of stigma and related social justice concerns.

The students came from schools across Toronto and Peel Region to see the performances at Theatre Passe Muraille and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive about learning through a dramatic production about empathy for and understanding of people with differences. For many students, it was their first opportunity to attend a professional theatre production.

Teachers in participating schools used the extensive study guide, prepared by Workman Arts in conjunction with CAMH staff, before and after seeing the production to further promote discussion of mental health.

Workman Arts Executive Artistic Director Lisa Brown explained that mental health isn’t part of the curriculum in most school boards until grade nine and even then it may not be taught in mandatory courses.

“The idea for students that so-called “crazy people” were once just like them is very powerful. The discussion this play generates can help in promoting awareness, changing attitudes and counteracting the prejudice and discrimination so often aimed at people with mental illness and those who are homeless,” says Roy Fernandes, principal of St. Henry Catholic School inToronto.

“I think that the play allowed my students to really rethink the idea of what it means to be “crazy” and why paying attention to the issue of being healthy, mentally, is important. Throughout the lead up to the play, my class began to see that the issue of mental health is not about madness but something on par to the discussion of any other ailment of the body (an ulcer or a broken arm). It began to demystify the stigma that too often surrounds discussion on mental health,” says Marc Proudfoot, a teacher at Alexander Muir/Gladstone Avenue Jr & Sr Public School.

The free performances for schools were made possible by generous sponsorship by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, the Ontario Arts Council, the Trillium Foundation, Sandra Pitblado, Morden Yolles, Digital Edge and CAMH.

For more information about Workman Arts, please visit www.workmanarts.com.