High school students’ art recognizes mental health awareness day

Argyle Alternative High School student Ocean Toews knows first-hand what it looks like when someone struggles with mental health and addictions after watching her uncle’s experience. 

The process of losing and regaining her uncle, who she says is like a second father to her, formed the inspiration for a short story Toews shared as part of an event at the Manitoba Legislature to mark National Child and Youth Mental Health Awareness Day.

“We’d hang out every day, and then one day it stopped,” Toews, who is in Grade 12, said of her uncle.

“I thought that I was doing something wrong, but it was something that was so out of my control and, as a 12-year-old, you don’t realize that.”

Students from Argyle were asked to share pieces of art — film, poetry, sculptures and stories — representing what mental health and addictions mean to them. 

Their works were on display inside the Manitoba Legislative Building during a ceremony marking May 7 as a day to focus on the experiences of kids and youth who have mental health challenges, or who live with people who do.

Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard had been scheduled to attend, but was unable to make it, Radisson MLA James Teitsma said at the event.

Argyle teacher Rosetta Troia, speaking at the event, said everyone struggles with mental health.

“Being a youth and having an addiction or a mental health disorder, or loving and living with someone who’s struggling with mental health and addiction, in an already stressful time in their life, is often more difficult.”

The art projects started as part of an addictions awareness week at the school, first involving students in the film program, Troia said.

Kids and youth face many challenges that impact their mental health, including low self-esteem, bullying, poverty, food insecurity, toxic relationships, unstable housing and the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“The biggest thing that you hear from a youth is saying, ‘No one understands me. No one gets me. Why do I even have to bother?’ said Dana Lance, youth co-ordinator at the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba.

“And it’s heartbreaking to hear, because when you hear that over and over, it becomes numbing.”

Ocean Toews, a Grade 12 student at Argyle Alternative High School in Winnipeg, says she watched her uncle go through struggles with mental health and addiction. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Ella Whitfield, also in Grade 12, drew a picture of a heart dangling from strings attached to a hand, like a marionette. 

“I wanted to capture how people with addictions often struggle listening to what their head says versus what their heart says,” she said.

Whitfield said many of her classmates have spoken to her about their struggles with mental health and addiction, and she thinks having a day to officially acknowledge that is a good thing. 

Toews said when her uncle was struggling with his addictions, she didn’t realize that she was going through something herself. 

Her relationship with her uncle eventually recovered and she showed her story to him.

“He now sees how I felt as someone who wasn’t in the forefront of the feelings.”

The students at Argyle Alternative High School created works of art representing what mental health and addiction mean to them. (Walther Bernal/CBC)