Cold hands, warm hearts in Canada

Mike White writes: Edmonton is a blue-collar prairie city.  Its suburbs are strewn with oilrigs and its CBD is mostly composed of underground shopping malls and corporate buildings whose smoked-glass facades reflect an immense sky.  At this time of year there are ice-bound ships in the frozen river, and the locals talk cheerily of a mild winter, but the night-time temperature of minus 15C persuades me otherwise.

I got a really warm reception, however, at the Alberta Health Services ‘Connecting For Kids’ event – and this annual conference attracts leading thinkers in child health and psychology, but this is the first time it has focused prominently on the arts in health.  The advance visits I made to some of the schools-based projects in the province’s child mental health programme, where I talked to some super-confident kids with tales of transformation and met an extraordinary array of agencies working in partnership, convinced me I had nothing to say to them that they weren’t already addressing – so I focused instead on how to make such programmes arts-driven, both theoretically and practically, rather than simply offering arts activities. This went down well, though habitual declarations of “awesome, just awesome” could have become meaningless were it not for the delegates’ ready enthusiasm to adapt our lantern-making and transition ceremonies into their projects. Round table conversations cropped up all over and if brains were dominoes, they were clearly ‘knocking’ on this one. There are thirty five schools clusters delivering this programme across the vast province, some working with indigenous and French-speaking  communities, and the track record of achievement in improved mental health for individuals and whole settlements is really impressive.

The other keynote presentation was a fascinating talk on the role of humour in reflective practice given by Warren Persowich, an educational psychologist and cancer survivor who moonlights as a stand-up comic on Canadian TV.

I came away envious at the intelligence, well-deployed resources, and relationship-based working that fuels the ‘Connecting For Kids’ programme.   Alberta has a story to be told to education and health services here in their crucial time of troubled transition.  But as my genial hostess and programme director Tracey Trudeau explained to me, Alberta Health Services are more inclined to bring in outsiders to speak to them than to export their own knowledge.  I still think there is a dialogue here to be pursued and CMH’s schools-based work could forge some great partnerships with the people who shape this Canadian programme.

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