One Western student’s passion for photography is now helping some of the country’s most vulnerable kids capture a crystal-clear snapshot of their own mental health.
Gabrielle Foss, a National Scholar pursuing a dual degree in Health Science and Business at Western, is co-founder of North in Focus, a non-profit organization looking to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health for some of Canada’s most disadvantaged Northern populations.
“I wanted to make it cool and fun by having kids want to show up at something that’s labelled a ‘mental-health workshop,’” Foss said. “Creating all of that, it can become a subject that is OK to talk about, healthy to talk about and normal to talk about.”
In 2015, Foss was introduced to Canada’s Northern communities through Students on Ice, a national program that educates youth about the importance of the polar regions in order to inspire initiatives that contribute to global sustainability.
“You learn about science and climate change, and about the beauty of the North, but also the challenges,” said the 19-year-old Foss. “We started to become aware of the epidemic of suicide in the North, through meeting various northern youth. Promoting mental health was at the root of solving other issues. That planted the seed for me.
“It pulls at your heartstrings. You find yourself wanting to do something.”
That trip inspired Northern Lights, a one-week photography workshop in Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, led by Foss and North in Focus co-founder Eva Wu, a McGill University student. Along with Western student Patrick Hickey, the team brought together dozens of youth to learn about photography while tackling mental-health issues through increased awareness of their own state of mental health and promotion of available resources.
The program was backed by the Social Science Student Council, Faculty of Health Sciences, Makivik Corporation, Students on Ice, as well as Polar Knowledge Canada.
Eric Foss, Gabrielle’s dad and a retired photojournalist, created a documentary of that trip.
Building on that success, North in Focus formed.
In October, the group traveled to Nain, Newfoundland and Labrador, a community of 1,400 people. Backed by the Nunatsiavut Government, the organization expanded its offerings beyond photography to include art and sports alongside its mental-health education. They gave youth the opportunity to hear about how to take steps toward decreasing the stigma of seeking metal-health treatment.
“We’re building from the idea that everyone has a state of mental health they have to take care of,” Foss said. “It was even a bit of awareness I was lacking. Ever since our first project, I have found my own awareness of my own state of mental health has improved so much.”
Personally, North in Focus has also taught Foss the value of self-care, self-esteem and self-efficacy.
“Taking purposeful action to take care of your own well-being – self-care is not selfish because, when you take of yourself, it allows you to take care of other people, too,” she explained. “Self-esteem is also important because it is such a prevalent issue with youth. With self-efficacy, every youth has the capacity to make a change in themselves and in their own community. This is why I do this.”
Foss admitted the idea of doing this work full time is enticing, since working with youth is her favourite thing to do. She also volunteers with Girl Guides of Canada.
“A year ago, I couldn’t see myself doing this repeatedly. But once you get a taste of that success and are seeing the impact it can have, you don’t want to stop, you just want to make it bigger. And if it’s a reason for people in the south to start discussions about mental wellness, too, that’s awesome.”
A SHARP FOCUS
North in Focus, a non-profit organization looking to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, and empower individuals to reach out for support in some of Canada’s most disadvantaged Northern populations, wants to hear from you. Those interested in becoming part of the team for upcoming projects and fundraising can learn more by visiting northinfocus.org.