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Photography helps local students address mental health in Nunavik

If a picture is worth a thousand words, first year Western University students Gabrielle Foss and Patrick Hickey are hoping they’ve left a lasting impression on the youth of Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, a small Inuit community in northern Quebec.

Taking advantage of some free time during Western’s Reading Week this past February, the pair of undergrads made the journey to Kangiqsujuaq on behalf of a youth-led, nonprofit advocacy group Foss recently helped establish with University of Toronto student Eva Wu, who was also on the trip.

While they were there, the trio met with youth from Kangiqsujuaq’s Arsaniq School and used photography workshops to offer them a creative outlet for self expression while encouraging positive discussions about mental health.

“(It) was identified as a place that was definitely in immediate need,” Hickey explained.

“The activities we did around photography were fun and a way to get kids in the door to participate,” Foss added. “Everyone always talks about the issues that exist in the north; I think improving mental health and everyone’s state of mental well being is so key to addressing the rest of those issues because if you can increase people’s self efficacy and belief (that) they can make a change in their own community, that’s so key in sparking positive change in every other area.”

In the wake of a highly publicized suicide epidemic in northern Ontario’s Attawapiskat First Nation over the past couple weeks are stark reminders about the many issues affecting people living in northern Canada. But while Attawapiskat continues to receive some much needed public attention, it isn’t the only First Nations community struggling with suicide.

Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency last month after experiencing six suicides since December and Kuujjuaq, another small community in Nunavik, northern Quebec, lost three teenagers to suicide over an eight week period earlier this year.

Foss, Wu and Hickey have all been on northern expeditions in the past. Their experiences with members from some of Canada’s northern communities have inspired them to do what they can to help situations they feel are being under reported and inadequately addressed.

“In so many cases I have heard stories of youth across Canada (and) North America that have no sense of hope, mostly due to the lack of resources and opportunities they see in their every day lives,” Wu said via email. “Why cover the wounds of suicide with a bandage when you can try to prevent it in the first place?

“Leadership skills, culture building, teaching parents to watch for signs, and community engagement are the bits and pieces that I have heard are needed most.”

Their organization is currently called Art With Heart, but Foss said the group will be re-branding. Their new name will be North In Focus and their next destination is expected to be Nain, Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador.

When that trip takes place, the group will have added a new member, Ashley Cummings, a native of Pangnirtung, Nunavut who has first hand experiences with many of the issues facing northern Canadian communities, including suicide.

The group will also be bringing with them the experiences they’ve collected so far.

“You hear all these statistics of the amount of suicides and attempted suicides and just mental illness in general, so we got slight exposure to that on these expeditions,” Hickey said. “But then going to Nunavik for a week, we got to see just how much it affects people. Everyone that I can think of who I met there had at least one family member die by suicide. It just highlights the severity of it.”

Art For Heart still has an online presence at awheart.com, where members keep an updated blog. Foss said people interested in learning more should also keep an eye on their Facebook page.

Written by Chris Montanini, retrieved from the Londoner