Category Archives: Community Mental Health

Aging Without Labels, PLEASE!

Phoebe 2

Phoebe, younger and older

I have been living at Hesperus Village for several years now, and have heard many stories from older people about their youth and adult life.  Although there may be regrets and a touch of sadness, there is usually an overriding feeling of warmth and gratitude for all their life experiences and special human relationships.  For instance, I remember Phoebe speaking about her participation in the groundbreaking work of the brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, and how happy she was to have had this opportunity.  Her expression in the photo above captures something of this highly refined emotion.  (Watch the Hesperus video for some other stories.  If you don’t have time for the whole 12 minutes, tune in for the conclusion at the 10-minute mark.)

It is for this reason that at Hesperus we sometimes speak of the fulfillment of old age.  Aging is not an illness or a disease, but a ripening process with wonderful fruits.  Expressions like aging with grace, dignity, success and so on, are well-intentioned, but stigmatizing.  Let’s just call it AGING!

If we would just take a little time and listen to the old folks, we might discover that aging isn’t so bad after all – We might even learn…

Yeats Decreptude


The Waiting List Trap – And How To Avoid It

from-waiting-to-livingThe main focus of many advocacy programs is a long waiting list: if we raise more money, we can reach more people and the list will get shorter.  Some organizations have found that this approach is not always effective, and have developed innovative alternatives.  For instance, Family Services Toronto (with the support of The Metcalf Foundation) has taken a very proactive approach.  They noticed that too many people on the waitlist feel like the seasons are passing without things changing.  And we focused on ‘Light Seekers’: people on the waitlist open to other types of non-therapeutic supports – from peers, groups, etc.  (Read about “From Waiting To Living”.)

Traditional waiting lists are stubborn and persistent – it seems that for every person served, two or three new folks join the list of waiters.  In the above story, people are motivated to take action themselves.  They learn to solve their problem in other ways, and are able to LEAVE the waiting list.  This in turn frees up resources for others.

The strategy behind projects like From Waiting To Living  does require a significant shift in the organization’s culture and training practices.  Staff are no longer simply administering a fixed program – each intervention requires creativity, a spirit of innovation, and  willingness to consider quite new perspectives.

I would be interested to hear about others who have had success with similar approaches!

I Am Tamil – 5 Rites Of Passage

Tamil-CoverI am not a regular reader of Now Magazine.  (I am white, over 60 and living in the suburbs, so maybe I’m a little out of touch.)  However, the cover story of the current issue caught my eye.  Radheyan Simonpillai describes the harrowing experiences of 5 different Tamil refugees, who somehow managed to keep their sanity through it all. And their new stories are just beginning.

Simonpollai also writes a brief review of the movie Dheepanwhich opens this Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox:

Jacques Audiard’s beautiful, angry story about three Tamil refugees posing as a family to escape Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war and build new lives in France understands displacement on a sensory level.  Adjusting to new customs and languages feels like stumbling in the dark.  Every face looks judgmental, suspicious or mocking…

Canada is earning a good reputation for welcoming refugees.  But after reading stories like this, I wonder if we are doing enough.  As well as digging into our pockets, maybe we need to dig a bit deeper into our souls.  It’s a rite of passage for us too.

Note: As well as Dheepan, there are several other liminal film events this weekend, including:


I Am Entangled!

doll-7-2-1Overheard last evening at the opening of Constructed Identities:

Separated from ourselves tied together by discarded bits and pieces…This is a gallery with tragedy and joy…Disability is just part of being human – it’s not an adjustment.  Sighted people are afraid of what they can’t imagine…Be in your body and emotions in whatever way makes you comfortable…

How refreshing to be in a roomful of (very diverse) people surrounded by these entangling sculptures!  I also look forward to spending some time in the gallery when it’s a little quieter.  (The exhibit runs until July 6.)

Reel Abilities – Understanding Media In New Ways


Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media in 1964, and 52 years later, we are still struggling to understand. Media literacy is a wicked oxymoron – a contradiction in terms.  I often feel baffled, confused, and even overwhelmed.

What happens when my identity is constructed by disconnected random events?  I felt this way yesterday when I visited the Constructed Identities exhibit at the Tangled Arts Gallery.

What happens when I make choices freely, and guide my life accordingly?  I am learning that people with visible or defined disabilities make great teachers.  For this reason, I am looking forward to the upcoming ReelAbilities Film Festival – understanding media in new ways.

Here are links to trailers for the featured films:

Endless Abilities

A Whole Lott More


The Way He Looks

The Interviewer

Deaf Jam

The Rainbow Kid



Touch Of The Light



Constructing Identities in Mental Health Week


Constructed Identities, an exhibit of new works by Persimmon Blackbridge, opens Wednesday at the new Tangled Arts Gallery in Toronto.  I attended an artist’s talk and preview last evening, and was moved by the experience.  She gives a compelling counter-narrative to many of the messages circulating during Mental Health Week, and the exhibit deserves wider attention.

Readers of this blog will understand why I think the subject of Constructed Identities is so relevant. We so often affix labels to people – often without their consent – and then expect them to conform to our standards of socially-defined sanity.  Rather than helping to heal people, we constrict them. How is it possible for folks to give meaning and direction to their lives, when their very identities are imposed on them from outside?

I am grateful when people with defined disabilities come forward and express themselves, as Persimmon has done.  She helps to wake the rest of us up.  Everyone has disabilities, and it’s the undefined ones – hidden, ignored and denied – that do the most damage.

The opening reception of Constructed Identities is on Wednesday, May 4th, 7-9pm at 401 Richmond St. West.  Maybe I’ll see you there.


Barrie gets the WEAVE

ttg31_318x412The World Wide Weave is a travelling fabric art exhibit with contributions from Camphill communities around the world.  (The image on the left is from Vietnam; click here to see a wide selection of other images.) The Weave has been enthusiastically received by audiences across Europe, and arrives at the Collier St. United Church in Barrie on April 7th.  It runs until April 22.  I encourage you to come – it’s a once in-a-lifetime  opportunity!  While you’re  in Barrie, be sure to visit the Camphill Store. (More information)

As well as being a beautiful exhibit in its own right,  the Weave is also a demonstration of the power of social art.  When a group of people with diverse backgrounds collaborates on a piece of textile art, they are not just weaving physical threads – they are renewing, strengthening and re-shaping the fabric of community life.  I believe this exhibit will be inspiring for many!