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An unidentified teen works on a watercolor painting
Art projects offer the opportunity to apply life skills in a non-threatening, fun and creative way.
November 25, 2022

Art supply donations helps MCH teens with mental health challenges

Hamilton friends Sandy Greenblatt and Laurie Horricks were walking their dogs in the summer of 2021 when their conversation turned to the role that art can play in helping young people develop self-confidence and learn new skills.

Laurie Horricks and Sandra Greenblatt

Laurie Horricks and Sandra Greenblatt enjoy walking their dogs Penny and Mo. A walk two years ago inspired a generous donation of art supplies by Dundas Valley School of Art.

It was a natural intersection of their interests, since Greenblatt is an art educator at Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA) and Horricks is a nurse practitioner specializing in child and youth mental health at Hamilton Health Sciences’ McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH).

Greenblatt told Horricks about Art-in-a-Bag art-supply kits that staff and faculty at DVSA had created, and the friends thought these bags would be a great fit for the hospital’s Child and Youth Mental Health Day Treatment Service. Horricks reached out to the DVSA, and a few days later the program received a donation of 75 kits for teenaged clients with mental health concerns.

“We don’t worry if they color outside the lines. In fact, we encourage it…” — Peter Neumayer, Child and youth worker

The day treatment service is based at Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre (RJCHC), which is part of MCH. It runs every weekday for patients aged 13 to 17 who are referred by their healthcare provider. The four-to-six week program provides treatment, education and support for young people affected by mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and psychosis.

Along with learning and practising skills to manage intense emotions and developing life skills like grocery shopping and cooking, activities include arts and crafts, making the DVSA donation a perfect fit.

Art-in-a-Bag

DVSA designed and launched the Art-In-A-Bag initiative in 2020-2021 as a way to bring art-making projects to communities during the pandemic, when it was difficult to provide in-person workshops. It was completely supported through donations by H.G. Bertram Foundation and the Edith H. Turner Fund, Martin Foundation Fund and John & Ester Marshall Memorial Fund at the Hamilton Community Foundation.

HS staff members Gianna Mazzocato, Miriam Elbard and Peter Neumayer stand outside the Ron Joyce Children's Health Centre wearing backpacks

HHS staff members Gianna Mazzocato, Miriam Elbard and Peter Neumayer support teens taking part in the Child and Youth Mental Health Day Treatment Service.

DVSA distributed more than 2,000 drawstring backpacks containing art supplies to 16 community services and organizations including the day treatment service for teens.

“While we don’t identify this activity as art therapy, doing art projects is definitely therapeutic.” — Miriam Elbard, child and youth worker

Bags were based on three themes — drawing, watercolor and collage:

  • The purple bag, for drawing, included a sketch book, sketching pencils and various drawing tools.
  • The green bag, for watercolor, provided paper, paints, brushes and a dabber.
  • The white bag, for collage, included a variety of paper, scissors, buttons and jeweled stickers.

All materials were the high-quality type used by professional artists. Bags offered a range of projects based on international artwork by artists of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities, and included artist profiles and art history information.

HHS has given out about 30 of the 75 kits to teens in the day treatment service so far, and they are always well received.

Building confidence through art

Kits are used on Thursdays for arts and crafts, says Miriam Elbard, a child and youth worker with the program. “While we don’t identify this activity as art therapy, doing art projects is definitely therapeutic.”

Art-in-a-Bag for watercolor

Green Art-in-a-Bag kits included supplies for creating watercolor paintings

Gianna Mazzocato, an occupational therapist with the program, says some teens have a background in art, or are naturally talented, but lost that connection due to their mental health challenges. “These art kits help them rediscover that passion.”

Other teens are new to art, and kits give them an opportunity to try something new and broaden their interests.

“It’s quite magical to see this group of teens go from being hesitant to trying something different, to loving art so much that they don’t want to put away their art project for the day,” says Elbard, adding that clients are welcome to take kits home and work on art projects in their spare time.

Child and youth worker Peter Neumayer says that working on art projects is more about building confidence than masterpieces. “We don’t worry if they color outside the lines. In fact, we encourage it because we want our clients to have the freedom to explore and learn as they go.”

Day treatment service

The Child and Youth Mental Health Day Treatment Service runs Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participants set goals to work towards, such as returning to school, and staff teach and coach skills and support them in reaching their goals through participation in different activities. Areas the teens focus on include self-regulation, social skills, stress management, healthy living, mindfulness and relaxation. Art projects offer the opportunity to apply these skills in a non-threatening, fun and creative way.

Art-in-a-Bag supplies with the purple backpack they are stored in

Purple bags, for drawing, included a sketch book, sketching pencils and various drawing tools.

Depending on their needs, clients may work with child and youth workers, occupational therapists and social workers. The team also includes a teacher from the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, who helps clients continue with their school work at their own pace while taking part in day treatment. The teacher also works with students and staff to support a return to school.

“This is a safe, supportive space where our clients can set goals and receive the support they need while working toward those goals,” says Elbard. “We want to give our clients the very best experience and support possible, which is why we’re so appreciative of these wonderful, high-quality art supplies.”