First-year psychology student Ashley Cummings has joined forces with three other Canadian university students to work with Northern Canadian communities in the area of mental health promotion. The youth-run organization, North in Focus, leads mental health workshops to decrease suicides in Northern Canadian communities, combining peer education and anti-stigma programming with art, physical recreation, and reflection activities.
"We focus on youth in the north because of the personal impact the entire team has felt by the high suicide rates,” says Cummings. “We mostly use photography and sport to engage youth in different avenues of expressing their emotions.”
All four members of North in Focus met through Students on Ice — a network that brings youth around the world to the Polar Regions for educational expeditions to expand their knowledge of the changing circumpolar world. Co-founders Gabrielle Foss, a second-year student from Western University, and Eva Wu, a second-year student from McGill University, began what was then Art with Heart in 2014 with the goal of promoting health using art.
After seeing the epidemic of mental illness and suicide in northern communities during their Students on Ice expeditions, they were inspired to expand their work into the area of mental health. Patrick Hickey, a second-year student from Western University, joined the group in 2015 as the education and mental health program co-ordinator. Cummings joined in 2016 as the northern consultant, ambassador and alumni co-ordinator.
"Living in the North, I used to see suicide as an uncontrollable way of dying just like any other fatal illness,” says Cummings. "When I realized how preventable and unnecessary it is and what little resources we had in the North, it became a really great source of passion in me to try and fight that. North in Focus has given me the opportunity to feel like I’m making a difference by delivering basic mental health information and giving kids avenues of self care and self expression.”
North in Focus has held workshops in Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik; Nain, Nunatsiavut; and in May 2018 will run a series of workshops in Nunavut. The group is spending 2017 as an internal development year.
Along with her extensive work with North in Focus, Cummings will also be a chapel assistant next year on campus. A national Loran Scholarship finalist, she plans to pursue a career as a counsellor.
“I hope to remain with North in Focus because I absolutely love the work we do with youth and feel like it makes a difference," she says.
For more information on North in Focus, visit northinfocus.org
From left: Gabrielle Foss, Ashley Cummings, Eva Wu, and Patrick Hickey.