In the heart of downtown Toronto sits a trailblazer in the mental health field—Workman Arts, the world’s longest-running multidisciplinary organization for arts and mental health. Workman Arts has overwhelmingly evidenced the benefits of engaging those with mental illness with the arts, through the many artistic careers and passions that they continue to foster. The organization produces works and supports artists in the fields of theatre, film, music, visual arts, literature, and more.
Their lead in supporting arts and mental health could encourage investment in additional avenues of aid lying outside of traditional psychotherapy and psychiatry, which are so desperately needed by Canada’s overburdened mental health care system. The founder of Workman Arts, Lisa Brown, has defined their effect through her coined term, ‘Therapeutic Arts Programming,’ which is “the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.” Those without access to formal therapy, or in need of additional ways to address their symptoms, may find some relief through this type of programming, which Brown says differs from formal therapy in expectation and instruction, but can be very beneficial.
For 29 years the organization has been growing into a powerhouse of artistic outlets for those with mental illness to learn, hone, and further their craft. Brown estimated that over half of the artists involved with Workman Arts are working towards an artistic career. The organization evolved from a theatre group to host exhibitions and personalized training classes in visual arts, publish literary works, contribute to mental health research and public information outreach, all while continuing its original theater component, now with over 30 original productions. Workman Arts has also created two innovative, internationally acclaimed events for those touched by mental illness to display their works: the Madness and Arts World Festival, a showcase of interdisciplinary arts that has been held in Toronto, Germany, and Amsterdam, and the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, which showcases Canadian and international films exploring mental illness and addiction issues.
Brown, who currently acts as the executive artistic director of Workman Arts, had been a psychiatric nurse at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) before leaving to commence the organization. When asked what inspired her to begin Workman Arts, Brown immediately and confidently stated: “The people that I was working with. I was quite amazed by the talent that the people [at the hospital] I was working with had.”
She went on to explain, “on Friday nights I would pull people together and we would jam or we would recite poetry – and the talent I was seeing wasn’t ordinary, in fact it seemed quite extraordinary, so I had a talent show with the group of artistic individuals.”
From there, Brown left CAMH to begin a theater troupe—a multifaceted way to engage painters, writers, actors, singers, musicians, etc.—for those with mental health issues, and Workman Arts was born. It would soon rapidly gain popularity among the many who felt the therapeutic benefits of art. Brown had known of this benefit for years, and mentioned that six of the seven famous Canadian landscape painters in the Group of Seven received mental health care.
In their expansion and development, Workman Arts has mirrored what many other institutions and studies worldwide have found: production, consumption, and general engagement of art can greatly aid those struggling with mental health issues. A quick Google search yields thousands of results connecting arts and mental health—perhaps most relevant being a 2015 study conducted by researchers from The University of Western Australia. The study found that two hours of artistic engagement per week in many of the areas Workman Arts specializes in – painting, crafting, reading, photography, and theater—led to participants (who were not deemed mentally ill) having “significantly better mental well-being.” As Workman Arts, and many others, have found, these benefits are dramatically translatable to those who do have mental illness as well.
Over their nearly 30 years of encouraging relationships between arts and mental health, Workman Arts’ members have repeatedly stated that creative activities reduced the debilitating symptoms of their mental illnesses. Further, members stated that the training and outlets provided by Workman Arts made them feel hopeful and purposeful, that their artistic endeavours had reduced stress in their lives, and that relationships with family and friends had improved after engaging in these creative activities.
“[Art] allows you, I think, to get out of your head and focus on something else,” says Brown. “When you have a mental illness your mind can be your worst enemy, so if you’re painting, or singing, or playing guitar, or watching a film, you’re not in your head, you’re actually focusing on something that brings pleasure. Art has the ability to really move us, to make us feel. Sometimes when you have mental illness you don’t want to feel, its easier to stay kind of bland, then you participate in art and it sparks the parts of your brain that may not get turned on when you are mentally ill.”
Particularly in Ontario, where Children’s Mental Health Ontario reported in 2015 that a rapidly growing number of the province’s youths (6,000 in 2015, estimated to double to 12,000 in 2016) regularly wait a year or longer for mental health treatment, further opportunities for aid are needed. CAMH has also estimated that, considering that mental illness constitutes about ten percent of the burden of diseases in Ontario, yet receives only seven percent of health care funding, mental health care in the province is underfunded by around $1.5 billion. Changes must be made in order to accommodate the growing number of Canadians seeking treatment, and supporting artistic opportunities such as Workman Arts may be an effective path for those who need aid outside of standard talk or medicinal therapy.
Some hospitals across Canada, including St. Michael’s in Toronto, have already implemented arts therapy programs, and Workman Arts facilitates a similar program with in-patient units in CAMH. However a greater push to encourage use of arts in addressing mental health may be a responsible step in enabling aid to those in need. This empirically beneficial practice may hold answers to effective treatment that creates barriers for so many.
In a climate projected to be increasingly accommodating, the future appears a bit brighter in light of the widespread success, beneficial results, and supportive community that Workman Arts has helped form in their development.
For more information on Workman Arts, visit www.workmanarts.com.
By: Alexa Battler
Image by: Adley Lobo
 About. (n.d.)Workman Arts. Retrieved from https://www.workmanarts.com/mission-and-objectives/
 2015 Report card: Child & youth mental health. (2015). Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Retrieved 22 September 2016, from http://www.kidsmentalhealth.ca/documents/cmho-report-card-2015-english.pdf
 Davies, C., Knuiman, M., & Rosenberg, M. (2015). The art of being mentally healthy: a study to quantify the relationship between recreational arts engagement and mental well-being in the general population. BMC Public Health, 16(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-2672-7
 Mental illness and addictions: Facts and statistics. (n.d.). CAMH: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/about_camh/newsroom/for_reporters/Pages/addictionmentalhealthstatistics.aspx