New student tackles mental health stigma
By Thomas Rose, Staff Writer
When Ashlyn Barnes-Stewart attended a community forum on Orillia’s citizen-led Sunshine Initiative, she quickly took the chance to sign up for a spot hosting a conversation about the way mental health issues are handled in the community. After the session, which boasted fifteen participants from throughout the city including Mayor Steve Clarke, a movement was born. Barnes-Stewart’s We Care Initiative seeks to drastically alter the scope of assistance available to those dealing with mental health issues and crises.
It’s certainly no small order. Barnes-Stewart doesn’t plan to go it alone – the former Georgian College student, who started at Lakehead this past September, hopes to utilize already existing infrastructure to facilitate her cause. The plan behind We Care is simple and elegant – Barnes-Stewart and her team will approach businesses throughout the city with window clings featuring the initiative’s logo, asking them to display them prominently. Businesses who carry the clings will act as a safe space for those suffering with their mental health and provide brochures designed by Barnes-Stewart and Kristin Caudle to those who seek them. Barnes-Stewart says that these brochures “will bring resources to people who may not have a way to access them otherwise,” by offering phone numbers and addresses of institutions such as the Canadian Mental Health Association. Further, the brochures contain locations of payphones throughout the city, so those who might not have access to a phone can still reach out.
Things are running smoothly so far for the initiative, says Barnes-Stewart, but the path is not completely without hurdles. “Right now the biggest problem is funding,” she says. “It takes money to get the brochures printed, and the funding put away by the Sunshine Initiative is distributed between different initiatives after they apply for it”. Nevertheless, Barnes-Stewart and We Care intend to apply for funding through the city once they’ve obtained quotes for the printing process.
Following the success of March’s Mental Health Outreach night at the Orillia Opera House, Barnes-Stewart is planning to host another event during Mental Health Week in November. “It’s important,” she says, “to let those with first-hand experience with mental illnesses talk about that experience.” She also finds that many in the mental health community are “sick and tired of hearing the same experts talk about statistics and not reality.”
When the Sunshine Initiative holds its next community forum on November 26th, Barnes-Stewart hopes to get input on how to improve the initiative, as well as gather ideas for future projects for We Care. “Our hope,” she says, “is to continue to improve on the way mental health issues are handled and perceived by the community in Orillia. We’re not going to do that overnight, but coming together as a community to recognize and put an end to the stigma is a good start.”