In her own words: The Art Studios: An aid to recovery

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By Sandra Yuen MacKay

The Art Studios is a program established in 1992 to provide support for those in the Vancouver-Richmond area of British Columbia with a “major mental health diagnosis.” The program offers art classes, open studio for independent work, and a traveling art show supported by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. Sandra Yuen MacKay first attended the Art Studios as a student in 2002.

I am a 43-year old Chinese-Canadian woman diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder. Shy and quiet, I first showed signs of mental illness at the age of 14. I suffered in silence, hearing voices, afraid of peering eyes, confused, and out of touch with reality. I was hospitalized at age 15.

During the years that followed, despite taking medication, I continued to have symptoms. Through perseverance, I completed high school, a fine arts diploma and a degree in art history. I worked and married, but suffered a relapse, was hospitalized in 1998 and had to quit my secretarial job. I felt I was back at square one.

At the Art Studios, I attended free art and writing classes. It was a safe environment where we shared an unspoken connection. With encouragement from others, I rekindled my interest in the creative arts. After taking a creative writing class, the female writing instructor encouraged me to send out writing submissions for publication. She became a close friend and confidante.

The all-women staff consists of occupational therapists, rehabilitation assistants and a part-time clerk. Most of the instructors are people like me who have experienced mental health problems themselves. Other members volunteer to assist classes and during open studio time. We have semi-annual art sales to sell our creative wares such as paintings, ceramics, jewellery, prints and art cards. Annual silent auctions help us raise funds to enrich the program.

Staff members suggested I apply for a job as a traveling art assistant to mount exhibits of members’ art at offices around Vancouver. Without their input, I would not have applied and attained the position. The coordinator asked me to teach a creative writing class, and although I had never taught before I ended up teaching for a whole year. Again, I received positive support from others. I developed more leadership skills as a chairperson for the planning meetings.

I talked about discrimination with female staff. Their empathy and compassion consoled me. When I spoke to them in confidence about problems, their insightful, diplomatic responses were beneficial.

I was also hired to aid in a program evaluation of the Art Studios. We wrote a report on the ways in which the Art Studios had aided the members' recovery, taught them skills and created community.

Through the Art Studios, I made contacts and gave talks on recovery to students, families and mental health professionals.

It took a long time for me to get past self-stigma. For a long time, I felt my gender and cultural background put me at a disadvantage on top of my illness. I learned to accept myself as a whole person.

As an artist, I can express myself without words. As a writer and public speaker on recovery, I can educate others about living with a mental illness. My experience at the Art Studios helped me find my niche. Out of the darkness, I have emerged—a little tarnished but with a candle of hope and joy for the future.

Sandra Yuen MacKay is a published writer and an artist and speaks publicly about recovery through the BC Schizophrenia Society.

For more information visit:

The Art Studios website:

Sandra Yuen MacKay’s website: