Local NSCAD grad Stella Ducklow has turned her passion for photography and art into a successful way to help young people struggling with mental illness and the associated stigma.
Ducklow is the first Young Artist in Residence for the Halifax-based Sun Life Financial Chair for Adolescent Mental Health. The group is comprised of people from Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre and it operateswww.teenmentalhealth.org .
For Ducklow, the connection to teen and youth mental health is a personal one. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager and knows firsthand some of the stigma that's often attached to mental illness.
As artist in residence, one of her duties is providing art workshops to youth and youth advocates. She said for young people with mental illness, art often allows them to express themselves in ways words cannot.
"I think the key always was for me and seems to be for some others is that having mental health problems and the stigma that goes with it is a profoundly unsettling experience and there just aren't words to express it," she explained.
"I did my artwork as a form of expression, and while I couldn't describe in words what I wanted, I could convey it in photographs."
One of the most satisfying aspects of her position is when others manage to find their own voices through art and photography. Ducklow recalled a youth who at the beginning of one workshop didn't want to talk. By the end, this young person had taken incredible photographs and experienced a transformation that resulted in an eagerness to share and engage.
"In a hospital you have a ton of people coming to ask you how do you feel, and you get sick of people asking that question," Ducklow said. "(Art) is a different way to express your feelings and it is a way to be heard."
As artist in residence, she also hosts a variety of events throughout the year designed to promote ‘creative discussion' and stigma-free space.
One of the most popular events that has taken on a life of its own is the monthly YOUth Against Stigma Coffeehouse.
Held on the third Friday of each month at Just Us Cafe on Spring Garden Road, the performance art and open mic nights are designed to combat the stigma of mental illness.
"It has become so much bigger than I ever imagined it would be... This is an event run for youth by youth, and the place is usually packed," Ducklow said. "We also have a fairly large presence that are older people and I think that's important because most of the youth already have the message. It's the policy makers who need the message."
She describes the coffeehouses as a cool environment for open dialogue.
The monthly YOUth Against Stigma Coffeehouse event celebrates its one year anniversary in May, and Ducklow is delighted to be partnering with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on May 3 for a coffeehouse that will mark National Youth Arts Week.
In addition to the teen mental health website that offers information and resources, the group has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/teenmentalhealth.org .