The power of the pen

Featured Story: InkWell Workshops

September 2017 

InkWell participants, instructors, and peer support workers stand in a line holding certificates of participation
InkWell Workshops participants, instructors, and peer support workers at the launch of their first published anthology this past spring


“When you have a mental health issue, your competence to tell your own story is questioned in a way that’s extremely distressing,” says Kathy Friedman. As someone who has lived experience of mental illness, the author and editor is working to provide a space to help others confront the feelings of powerlessness and stigma that she has experienced throughout her life. Her tool: the pen.

InkWell Workshops was founded in February 2016 by Friedman and Eufemia Fantetti after the two attended a talk about creative writing and mental health. The talk had a profound impact: “That night was the first time I’d ever made a connection between my own recovery from depression and my passion for writing and reading. I realized that transforming our experiences through storytelling can be a powerful healing process,” says Friedman.

seated viewers look on to a reader speaking into a microphone
A reading at the launch of the InkWell Workshops anthology
The program provides free drop-in writing workshops for people with mental health and addiction issues. Led by professional artist-educators and writers, the workshops cover everything from poetry to non-fiction, and are intended to provide the participants with the “tools to define, shape, and creatively explore the stories they wish to write,” says Friedman. “We’re also trying to challenge stereotypes and increase the diversity of voices in arts education and in literature.”

Friedman emphasizes the importance of holding a stigma-free environment to the success of the program. The deliberate decision to work with artist-educators with lived experience of mental illness is essential to this. “If we don’t feel safe and accepted, both the quality of our creative work and our creative output suffer. Given the devaluation of the voices and abilities of people with lived experience, it feels really empowering to me that we can run the workshops ourselves,” she adds.

Art has long been used as a healing tool, both in practice and experience. The freedom of creativity, and the space it allows to explore, challenge, imagine, feel, and so much more, is one of the many powers of the arts. It is the undeniable – and often unquantifiable – emotional and intellectual benefits of every art form that makes the arts so essential to the health of an individual and society. Canadians overwhelmingly agree: nine in ten Canadians believe that exposure to arts and culture is important to their well-being,1 and 75% of Canadians believe that the arts make more integrated and healthier communities.2 We also know that eight major indicators of health and well-being (including physical health, mental health, stress level, and overall satisfaction with life) are strongly connected to attending, or participating in cultural activities.3

A reader speaks into a microphone
An InkWell Workshops participant reads her piece
InkWell Workshops is having a real impact. “The feedback we’ve received has been phenomenal” says Friedman. “We’ve heard about how writing helps our participants ‘to be in tune with my true self’ and ‘gives me a voice when I feel invisible’… We’ve heard that the workshops give participants a space to feel ‘perfectly safe just to be myself’; a place where ‘I can be heard, without prejudice or stereotypes.’ We’ve heard about their efficacy as a healing tool: ‘I’ve lost some feelings of sadness and isolation. I belong!’ and ‘I’ve been in hibernation a long time. As a result of this group, it feels like spring again.’

With  support from both Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council, Friedman is now able to offer the increasingly in-demand workshops every week. “I think that to have a community like InkWell where we can gather, where we can tell our stories, be respected as artists, and feel a sense of belonging and empowerment is desperately needed,” the author explains. As for the future of the program, Friedman has had a lot of inquiries from people across the province and Canada who would like to see something like InkWell in their community. For now, however, the goal is to secure sustainable funding for the workshops and expand them to more locations throughout the GTA.

For more information on InkWell Workshops, visit

InkWell Workshops is funded, in part, through Toronto Arts Council’s Community Arts portfolio.

Public funding for the arts helps to support programs like InkWell Workshops. Let your political representatives  know that you support the arts.

Department of Canadian Heritage (2012). Arts and Heritage in Canada: Access and Availability Survey.

2 Business for the Arts and AIMIA (2015). Canadians Value Companies That Support the Arts.

3 Hill Strategies Research (2013). The Arts and Individual Well-Being in Canada: Connections between Cultural Activities and Health, Volunteering, Satisfaction with Life, and Other Social Indicators in 2010.