The Mount Pleasant Project: destigmatizing mental illness through art

“I am not this mental illness. I am a strong person who has all these goals and things I want to do and I will continue to do them despite this difficult period in my life.”

These are words Anja Hedji is able to say confidently after her own struggles with depression. Now she hopes to open up a positive conversation about mental health with The Mount Pleasant Project. The project, in its first year, invites those affected by mental illness to share their experiences through visual art and has organized two workshops with complimentary art supplies for participants. The collection will be displayed at a reception at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House for anyone to enjoy.

The project is a culmination of Hedji's passion for art and her personal experiences with depression. 

“I found art is a really great way to express myself without words, especially because there aren’t always specific ones for what goes on inside," she said. The objective is to create a sense of community and provide a safe space to discuss mental illness.

Participants at a workshop on Sunday agreed that the relaxed setting allowed for easy conversation on a tough subject.

“It’s a good way to get people together,”said Gab McCarthy, one of the artists and friend of Hedji who has also faced depression. “It’s hard to just talk [about mental illness], but while you’re painting together, it’s really easy.” 

McCarthy emphasized how art personalizes mental illness by providing individual stories rather than the anonymity that forms when the topic so rarely discussed. McCarthy believes personalizing the subject encourages people to think more deeply about mental illness and to consider the people behind the illness.

The workshop showed the “who” to have many faces — a point Hedji seeks to emphasize. The art varied from gentle landscapes to abstract work with bold colours, charcoal sketches and several portrayals of the body. 

Hedji believes in making the conversation open to “literally anyone who wants to join in,” even if they have not had a personal experience with mental illness. Another artist, Mikela Vetro, said most of her knowledge comes from her loved ones experiencing depression. This proximity made her more aware of the prevailing stigma, particularly with common slang used at the expense of those with mental illness. 

Her biggest advice is simply to “get informed” before forming assumptions and — as McCarthy and Hedji agree — to consider how our everyday language affects the destigmatizing process.

Hedji affirms there is still a long way to go in destigmatizing mental illness and this project is the first of many she hopes to initiate. Hedji has expressed hope to develop a “more positive education system” that encourages conversation around mental health from a young age. She and McCarthy have also discussed creating a youth female zine focusing on mental health.

As the project’s website cites, “Only 20 per cent of Canadian children who need mental health services receive them." Canadians under 20 are also most likely to suffer from depression. Creating communities around art and shared stories is the primary goal, giving everyone an opportunity to talk “whichever way they want … and be honest, a 100 per cent completely honest.”

Although the submission deadline has passed, there will be art supplies available at the reception for anyone who wishes to participate. The reception is open to the public at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House on November 18 at 6.30 p.m.