IN CONVERSATION: Natalie Daley and Kathy Friedman

Interview by Ieva Lucs

Ieva Lucs explores how creative expression can help open up a new world and give a voice to someone who may be having trouble speaking out in more conventional ways. She corresponded with two people who bring to the community around them the opportunity to create. Kathy Friedman, an acclaimed writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, is the co-founder of InkWell Workshops, where she leads creative writing classes for people living with mental health or addiction issues. Natalie Daley, the Director of Art With Impact Canada, an association advocating for mental well-being through filmmaking, also helps run Movies for Mental Health—a program that uses short films to help fight the stigma of mental health on post-secondary campuses.

HLR: What experiences of your own made you want to start using art to help heal?

ND: Mental illness influences us in so many ways throughout our lives, and the fluctuations in my own mental health were something I was aware of at a very young age, but found difficult to speak about given the isolation and stigma that unfortunately still surround these topics. I have an anthropology and nonprofit management background, so educationally that's how I became connected with the organization. But a driving factor for getting involved—which I find quite often in the realm of mental health not for profits—is my own lived experience and the desire to change the way we think and connect about these issues so that we can exist in a more compassionate and understanding environment. 

KF: In 2013, I attended an event on the connection between creativity and mental health with my friend Eufemia Fantetti. David Foster Wallace's biographer, D.T. Maxx, was in town being interviewed about Wallace's experiences of mental illness and how they affected his writing. It was like I'd just been plugged into an electric socket. It was the first time I'd ever made a connection between my own (ongoing) recovery from mental health issues and my passion for writing and reading. Those things had always seemed to be unrelated parts of my identity— although I did buy into the myth when I was younger that my depression somehow made me a better artist, that madness and creativity are connected (which is all very well, until you're too depressed to get out of bed, let alone write). 

That night, Eufemia and I talked about starting our own organization to teach creative writing to people with lived experience in the community. InkWell is a wonderful fit between these different parts of who I am: my lived experience, my writing, my passion for teaching, and my belief in a universal health-care system that treats everyone with dignity and respect.

HLR: How is healing through art different from healing through conventional means?

ND: I think art is so unique in that no matter where you're coming from in your healing process, art has the ability to meet you exactly where you're at. I saw something today as part of a Massachusetts-wide “Arts Matter Day,” which said, “there is no wrong answer when it comes to art.” I think conventional healing through therapy and other means is critical, but expressing our experiences with an artistic component is a unique way to capture a person's resilience and recovery.

KF: I really believe that arts education can be complementary to more conventional therapeutic tools, such as medication and talk therapy. The creative writing workshops we run emphasize resilience and hope, and suggest that people with lived experience have important stories and insights to share. We hope our project can help address issues of stigma, isolation, and powerlessness that have a huge effect on people’s health.

HLR: Is art necessary for healing? Whether it is filmmaking or creative writing, do you believe connecting through art is a necessary part of the process of recovery for someone with a mental illness or addiction?

ND: In the nature of our mental health and of mental illness being such a deeply personal experience, I think it makes perfect sense that art and creativity—also being inherently personal—are a natural fit as a tool for both exploration and recovery. In the way that we use film in our work, students gain a sense of understanding, compassion, and ultimately validation for their experiences— which is really healing. Particularly when issues related to mental health can feel so isolating a lot of the time.

KF I definitely agree with Natalie that creativity is a natural fit for mental health recovery: transforming our experiences (some of which may be painful or traumatic) through storytelling is a powerful process. For me, the deep concentration and flow that I (sometimes) achieve while writing can feel very healing, even transcendent. However, recovery is an individual process, and I'd stop short of saying that art is necessary for healing. There's no one path to wellness for any of us, and no quick fixes. But I think that writing and sharing our stories can be a piece of the puzzle for a lot of people, especially people whose voices have tended to be marginalized and ignored.

HLR: In your time working with people with mental illnesses and addictions, have you witnessed a transformation or moment of real change in someone?

KF: InkWell is a new kid on the block: my co-founder and I started running drop-in workshops once or twice a month in February 2016. Then we were fortunate to receive funding that enabled us to lead the workshops on a weekly basis, beginning in August. We're working on developing trust and building writing skills and community with our participants. I've witnessed tremendous growth in this short span of time is: our participants' writing skills and confidence have developed a lot, and we’re thrilled.

ND: Our vision as an organization is to see artists revered as cultural icons of courage and change when it comes to mental health, utilizing honest stories about the realities of mental illness through short films to help subvert stigma and increase compassion. We do this by creating environments where young people feel they can communicate freely and fearlessly about their mental health, and where they are encouraged to seek help when they need it by being connected with resources in their place of learning—either within high school environments or on postsecondary campuses. 

We've run over 80 workshops on various campuses as an organization. Not only have we seen a lot of growth in the way that mental health is talked about, but also how much stigma still persists—particularly self and internalized stigma. When we use art to initiate the conversation, a lot of validation takes place in the way that individuals experience the films, and that's always incredible to see.

I do know some instances where some of our filmmakers have made a film about their personal experience with a mental illness, and creating the film and putting it out into the world was the first time they publicly shared their story. I think this was a really empowering experience for those individuals.

KF: I love this, Natalie—the idea that some of your filmmakers are publicly sharing their stories for the first time. And the fact that showing these films can then make others feel less alone is such a wonderful example of the power of art and storytelling.

Some of our participants write non-fiction work about their recoveries; others use their wild and wonderful imaginations. Our group isn’t focused on stories of lived experience. Having been consistently treated as something other than human by mental health professionals, I know how meaningful it is to be seen as a person—an artist like any other—with a story to share. 

There's a lot of research that supports this approach: the idea that creative writing as an artistic practice (rather than a therapeutic one) can have fantastic outcomes for depressed mood, confidence, self-esteem, and social connection. And certainly the feedback we've received so far from our participants supports this as well.

Natalie Daley is the driving force behind Art With Impact Canada and is responsible for facilitation, programming, outreach, fundraising, and partner relationships for our Movies for Mental Health program north of the border. She also engages students and advocates daily through AWI's social media platforms. Natalie is committed to providing unique ways for students to engage in conversations around mental wellness and is extremely excited to see how Art With Impact grows in Canadian colleges, universities, and workplaces.

Kathy Friedman’s writing has appeared in literary magazines, including The New Quarterly, PRISM international, Grain, Geist, Room, Canadian Notes & Queries, and This Magazine. She has been a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers; runner-up for the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award; runner-up for PRISM international’s short fiction contest and was nominated by PRISM for the Journey Prize. Kathy has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and a BFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph and at Workman Arts, and is a co-founder of InkWell Workshops.