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Toronto A public art project puts mental health on display in Toronto’s subways

When it comes to mental health, many can’t find the words. But a poster campaign on Toronto’s subways is looking to leverage the power of art to encourage understanding over the holidays, even when words fail.

Attitude, an artwork by Kayla Free, which is part of a poster campaign organized by Twentytwenty Arts.

Twentytwenty Arts

In a series called Life on the Line, 20 artists designed posters to show their feelings around mental health, which will be displayed on Toronto Transit Commission’s Lines 1 and 2 subways until Jan. 6.

“Art has an opportunity to communicate experiences that might be incommunicable,” said Megan Kee, executive director for Twentytwenty Arts, an organization that promotes charitable causes and created the poster campaign.

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“We wanted to represent a diversity of experiences that showed not only people’s struggles with mental health but also the triumphs in their mental wellness journey,” Ms. Kee said.

Some of the artists contributed work that reflected intense personal experiences. Kayla Free said she created her piece, Attitude, during a period of depression. The image shows a figure huddled in bed with a large hole beside it.

“That’s just kind of how I was feeling,” Ms. Free said. “I was really depressed and I couldn’t get out of bed. I just felt really negative at the time.”

While Ms. Free said she continues to feel that way at times, she hopes her experiences and the Life on the Line project could inspire those who don’t know what depression feels like to be present for others in their lives.

Untitled, an artwork by Steve Rose.

Twentytwenty Arts

“I think a lot of people with depression or mental illness, when they get to that point, they don’t reach out for help or they think people don’t care about them," she said.

“But when they do reach out for help, they find out people do care.”

Steve Rose, in his untitled work for the poster campaign, sought to show how widespread an experience mental health problems can be, while emphasizing that it is just as important as physical health.

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“It was just really about the ‘shadow life’ that exists for everyone,” Mr. Rose said, “the daily struggle that we encounter.” The feeling of fragility and suffering is something we all have in common, he said.

For Jenn Kitagawa, an increased awareness of the importance of her own mental health inspired Growing, a self-portrait with vibrant colours symbolizing internal growth.

Growing, an artwork by Jenn Kitagawa.

Twentytwenty Arts

“I think like most people, I’ve been focused on my physical self and haven’t taken time to take care of my mental health,” Ms. Kitagawa said. She said shifting her habits and taking up practices such as yoga and meditation has helped her make that change.

The use of visual art can be an important part of public education about mental health, said Anna Skorzewska, a professor at the University of Toronto whose work examines the intersection of arts and medicine.

“I do really think [art] is a corrective against stereotypes of mental illness,” Dr. Skorzewska said. “Art is very layered and very complex, and it’s difficult to reduce it to a simplistic representation of what mental illness is.”

The creation of works, such as the posters for Life on the Line, fits within an well-established tradition of art therapy, Dr. Skorzewska noted. Viewing art can shift your perspective, but creating art can also be empowering, she said.

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Along with its efforts to increase awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health, the campaign is also meant to raise funds for a holiday gift program run by the Canadian Mental Health Association. Eighty per cent of proceeds from sales of the posters from the TTC’s online shop will go to the program, which delivers everything from food, toiletries, to Christmas gifts to those with mental health problems who might be isolated throughout the holidays.

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