Youth mental health program fundraises to stay afloat

The Spot held an auction on March 29 to raise funds after not receiving a government grant to help with its operating costs this year.

Ash MacDougall sits in a plastic chair, reading sheet music from her lap and practicing the Beatles’ Hey Jude on her flute. Beside her, her friend Avery Muir compliments her progress.

At another table, someone is playing with art supplies. Sounds from an electric guitar and drum set sneak through a separate, closed off room.

Two participants practice their guitar skills at The Spot. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Two participants practice their guitar skills at The Spot. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

This is a common scene at The Spot, a drop-in mental health program for youth held at the Pavilion on the Halifax Common. The Spot, partnered with Connections Halifax, is described as a safe space for youth to create and express themselves through music and art.

“Honestly, I love the people here. The people here are so open. Everybody is going to accept you, no matter what,” said Muir. “You’ll never feel left out or outcast here.”

The Spot recently held an auction where it raised approximately $5,500. The fundraiser was held because The Spot did not receive government grant funding, like it has in the past, to help with its operating costs this year.

Michael Nahirnak, a co-ordinator of The Spot, says the money will probably keep The Spot running until summer. He says he doesn’t know why The Spot did not receive a grant this year, but is not pessimistic about it.

The Spot is a free program so participation is accessible to everyone. Nahirnak says this is uncompromising.

“[Youth] can be a time that issues do pop up in terms of mental health,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to support youth through that.”

The Spot uses the Pavilion for free, but costs to run the program include compensation for program facilitators, art supplies, instruments, instrument repair, equipment upgrades and refreshments.

Art supplies at The Spot. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
A small bit of art supplies at The Spot. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Artwork made by participants of The Spot. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Artwork made by participants of The Spot. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

MacDougall and Muir, both high school students, have been coming to The Spot for several months. Muir says she feels like an outcast at school, but is able to express herself at The Spot.

MacDougall says The Spot is here for “people who don’t necessarily think the same way as the rest of society.”

Nahirnak says The Spot is always looking to grow. For the future, he hopes The Spot can hire a full-time co-ordinator, do more work with outreach and find its own space.

“I think in the far future it would be great for The Spot to have its own home,” he said. “A one-stop shop that youth can come and be creative and have support.”

The fundraising auction showed there is community support for arts and mental health programming, but Nahirnak says it may not be enough.

“People want this kind of stuff,” he said. “However, the city probably needs to step up a little bit to help us with that.”

Nahirnak says The Spot has plans to collaborate with its partner Youth Art Connection and other charities and ask the Halifax Regional Municipality for more support.

In the meantime, Nahirnak and fellow co-ordinator Heather MacDonald, hope to find a more sustainable form of funding. The Spot will not be hosting another auction in the near future.

The Spot runs on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

“Art and music are universal. We promote mental health, but it doesn’t mean you need to have a mental health issue to come,” said Nahirnak. “Everyone is welcome, as long as you’re interested in creating.”

Brian MacQuarrie: comedian, actor, human

MacQuarrie is best known for his work with Picnicface, but what happens when a comedian has a ‘ mental breakdown’ and has to pick up the pieces?

The small crowd at Toothy Moose applauds as Brian MacQuarrie approaches the stage, Moleskine notebook in hand. He opens it to the page his routine is scribbled on, rests it on a stool sitting in the spotlight, and grabs the microphone. He chuckles. “OK. I’m going to try some new stuff and some old stuff. Hopefully you guys are on board with this.”


“I like the idea of performing a show and everybody misses out on it,” MacQuarrie said while preparing jokes for tonight’s stand-up routine. “The best word I’ve ever heard in performance is turn-away; how many turn-aways did we have? How many people wanted to be a part of that show and missed out?”

Born in Antigonish, N.S., MacQuarrie has been doing improvisational theatre and standup comedy since 2003 when he was accepted at Dalhousie University. Since then, he has found success as a comedian, overcome a mental breakdown and is making a career as an actor.

Joins Picnicface

In 2003, MacQuarrie became captain of the University of King’s College improv team and met Mark Little, Evany Rosen and Kyle Dooley. Together, they began doing sketch comedy under the name Picnicface.

In 2007 the troop released its video, Powerthirst, on YouTube and it went viral. Many members came and went in the early stages of Picnicface, but once their video went viral the quick jump to stardom solidified the official eight members — one of them being MacQuarrie.

“We originally started with four, five people in the audience, then we got to the point where we’d just see this lineup of people going around the block. It was like, ‘Really, you guys want to see us?'” says MacQuarrie. “We’d do a show, have some drinks … it was the best ever.”

The group quickly became recognized by big names such as Disney, CollegeHumor and FunnyOrDie. They were also invited to the YouTube Canada launch in Toronto, and began making an independent film: Roller Town.

Soon after the completion of Roller Town in 2011, The Comedy Network decided to give Picnicface its own show.

“It was the coolest experience in the world. I wrote a television show with my friends,” says MacQuarrie. “Fans were coming up to me saying they were fans. It was great. It was jarring.”

Picnicface was in the midst of shooting its TV show and was about to release its film when MacQuarrie began struggling with mental illness.

“Then something just sort of unhinged for me … I ended up having a mental breakdown,” he says.

MacQuarrie has a history of depression and anxiety. He was flying to and from Toronto and Halifax and was barely sleeping. He says he was purposely trying to gain weight. He was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, as well as marijuana, and disconnected himself from the other members of Picnicface.

“My brain just went clunk.” MacQuarrie mimics the noise and quickly twitches his head. “I lost my mind. Absolutely lost my mind. I rented a hotel room for three months. I would walk around the hotel in my underwear all the time. I was out of my mind. Several days without eating food. Just drinking glasses of water. I lost my mind.”

 

In the midst of his breakdown, MacQuarrie received a phone call saying that his TV show had been cancelled.

“I hated the idea of the show being cancelled. Some people were like, ‘Did Brian drive the show into the ground?’ Um, no. Even if I was out of my mind, I was signed up with so many contracts … if they wanted a TV show they could have made me do it.”

Picking up the pieces through teaching

After his show was cancelled, MacQuarrie says he apologized to everyone he could and began teaching students and people affected by mental illness. He volunteered at Dramafest, a three-day theatre festival held at Dalhousie for high school students, taught at Improv U in Quebec, and ran his own mental health improv classes at Dalhousie. Teaching these classes helped MacQuarrie cope with his own mental illness.

“I believed that I could change the way people thought about mental health. My manager said to me, ‘This is career suicide. Kiss comedy goodbye.’ And it was just like, ‘I don’t think that’s true. I need to do this for myself.’

 

“It was really humbling to have these moments with these people and I got to see their development as people. So it was one of the best things that I ever did.”

MacQuarrie met a firefighter at one of his classes and began to work out with him, which resulted in MacQuarrie losing a lot of weight. He tried to audition for the role of Lex Luthor in the upcoming Superman film, but was not hired. He moved to Toronto, but moved back to Halifax less than a year later.

Current projects

After doing small acting roles for a while and doing standup regularly, MacQuarrie was cast in the Halifax film Relative Happiness. MacQuarrie plays Gerard, a failed love interest of the main character, Lexie.

“I got a call and was asked to do a reading for [Relative Happiness]. So I did. They said, ‘Well, it’s close to what we want’ and I was like whatever you want, I’ll do it. I’ll spend the days working on a character and you’ll have something that sort of stands out.”

MacQuarrie was also cast in his first lead role since Picnicface in the feature film Your Wife or Your Money, which is currently in post production. MacQuarrie plays Warren, a role specifically written for him, who has “this kind of unstoppable force who would do anything for his girlfriend.”

“Maybe no one will want to see it, but maybe people will see it in England. Maybe people will see it in L.A. or New York.”

MacQuarrie also acted with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on the series Schitt’s Creek.

He has been applying for grants in order to write his own movie scripts and is currently writing an “anti-romantic comedy” television pilot with Petra O’Toole.

With the help of friends, MacQuarrie has also been working on a new animated series called Eric the Pillager, an adult comedy about vikings. MacQuarrie does the voice of Björn, a less than intelligent man who provides comic relief. MacQuarrie is most excited about the fifth episode because he came up with the episode idea all on his own. They are currently trying to get a deal with Teletoon for the show.


 

 

“That’s why I had a mental breakdown. I wasn’t living the way I wanted to. The people I’ve met I wouldn’t have met if I didn’t lose my fucking mind. I wouldn’t be working on this pilot that I like. I wouldn’t have got the movie,” says MacQuarrie.

“Yeah, the world is a terrible place, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Life is fucking amazing … It’s taken a while to rebuild, but I’ve never been more confident than I am right now.”

Mind Ball brings mental health to the party

“Its a party with heart and a purpose,” say the party organizers.

Between 300 and 400 young adults danced the night away last Saturday at Halifax’s second Mind Ball.

The Mind Ball was an opportunity for people to get dressed up, get together, and to let off some steam. The party’s additional purpose was to contribute to destigmatize mental health problems and illness.

“The party definitely meets expectations,” said Nicole Kink who attended the event. “It’s great to get people talking about mental health in a social and less formal context too.”

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Nicole Kink and Megan White get goofy with Mind Ball’s lively atmosphere and costume booth (Photo: Rachel Collier)

The Mental Health Commission of Canada reports that about 20 per cent of Canadians live with mental illness and that mental illness continues to be met with widespread negative attitudes.

It also says that these negative perceptions around mental health are one of the main reasons why more than 60 per cent of people with mental health problems or illness won’t seek the help that they need.

Mind Ball organizers Allison Ghosn and Rebecca Singbeil recognize this issue within Halifax.

Ghosn and Singbeil attended various mental health events around Halifax and noticed a pattern.

“It was generally the same group of people at every single event,” says Ghosn.

Singbeil and Ghosn wanted to create a mental health event that would reach a demographic of people who weren’t already engaged in learning about mental health issues.

“We needed an event that people would already want to go to,” said Ghosn who realized that the 18-30 year olds are important to target when it comes to mental health awareness.

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This group of university students couldn’t give up the opportunity to both dance and to express their support and desire for more positive mental health perceptions. (Photo: Rachel Collier)

The Canadian Mental Health Commission says that 70 per cent of adults with mental illness report that symptoms began in their teens or early 20s.

“So we decided, we’re going to have a party but were going to try to put as many pieces into it as we can that will promote awareness,”said Ghosn.

“Sharing educational facts that contradict mental health myths is the most effective way of reducing stigma among adolescents,”  says Lynne Robinson, a mental health expert at Dalhousie University.

“Interacting with people who actually have mental illness is another very useful strategy for people of all ages,” she said referring to an analysis of strategies used to reduce stigma.

Another Halifax blizzard prevented some elements of the party from taking place.

However, multiple local artists who are passionate about mental health did show up to help stimulate conversations and thoughts about the topic.

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Ghosn and Singbeil welcomed artists from Atlantic Cirque, Brave Space and Outsider Insight among others.

DJ Zora the Sultan set the musical tone for the party’s busiest spot – the dance floor.

An area called the Mind Lounge was set up away from the dance floor. It had bean bag chairs, bottled water, a quiet atmosphere, peer support, paints,  and other mental health resources.

“We want people to get comfortable with mental health, give it an image boost. We wanted an event where people wouldn’t hear mental health and say ‘oh that’s not for me,’” says Ghosn.

“We need to break down the us vs. them perceptions. Everyone has mental health and it is something that everyone needs to take care of, ” she says.

Ghosn and Singbeil have already started imagining possibilities to keep next year’s event interesting.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re thinking of something that might be say, a three day, daytime type of event for next year,” says Ghosn.

Dalhousie group combatting the stigma around mental health issues

Marianne Xia, a third year student who suffers from panic and anxiety attacks, is starting a student-run society to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Marianne Xia, a third-year student at Dalhousie University who suffers from anxiety and panic disorder, is starting a student-run group called Anxiety and Panic Disorder Society.

The society was started about two weeks ago and since then Xia has recruited 37 members to the Facebook page. The goal is to form a charity to raise money to help those who suffer from anxiety and panic disorder.

Xia says she started the group because she feels that there is a lack of awareness and emotional support for those who suffer from anxiety. She feels that people don’t treat mental health issues the same as a physical injury or sickness.

“People sometimes think you’re pretending to be that way, they just don’t understand,” said Xia.

Xia suffers from panic and anxiety attacks. She says that it was brought on by being bullied for six years in primary school.

She says when she had panic attacks her parents and school teachers would tell her that she should stop feeling that way, and that she was fine because she showed no physical symptoms.

She says she had a very serious panic attack two summers ago while at work.

“I started thinking a lot; it was hard to breathe and then I felt like I was having a heart attack because my heart rate would instantly go up to 150 and I couldn’t breathe. I felt numb all the way to my chest and fingertips and I couldn’t stand any more. My fingers became really cramped and everyone thought it was a seizure.”

Xia had to be taken away in an ambulance. She says her employer paid the $400 ambulance bill, though she still felt that her attack wasn’t taken seriously.

Xia says that even in Canada there are few resources to help people cope with anxiety and panic. She mentions Canadian Mental Health Association and Anxiety Disorder Association. Xia hopes to have her own website by the end of March.

“I realize that lots of people don’t have access to counselling services so this is why I am setting up this society,” she said.

Access to counselling services is becoming more stretched within the Dalhousie campus and the Halifax Regional Municipality area.

There is a six-week long waiting list for Dalhousie counselling services. Dr. David Mensink, a registered psychologist with Dalhousie counselling services, feels that they are doing their best to provide quality service for students and reduce the waiting list that is already 80 students long.

Mental health services in Halifax are extremely stretched according to Mensink. With a six month waiting list for services in the city, the wait for the Dalhousie services no longer seems as long.

“They are so stretched that they are referring in to us so it’s not like the community is creating more options, it’s actually working in reverse. The community is giving us more work,” said Mensink. “If you had better community services then the waiting list here could be shorter.”

With such a long waiting period Xia’s new society could not come any sooner. They provide student run support groups for those students who require extra help coping with anxiety and panic disorder.

Xia’s society will be hosting a fundraising night at Boston Pizza on March 11. Ten per cent of food and drink sales from those who attend the night will be given to the society.