Lisa Brown

Emprendedor social de Ashoka
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Fellow since 2013
This description of Lisa Brown's work was prepared when Lisa Brown was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013 .


Lisa Brown is integrating individuals with mental health issues into society by using art as a means to build a deeper and more empathic understanding of mental health challenges in Canada.

La idea nueva

Working at the intersection of arts and mental health, Lisa is sparking a society-wide discourse to challenge the stereotypes surrounding mental illness. Lisa breaks down barriers for those who suffer from severe mental illness and addiction, enabling their personal and professional growth. Unlike other mental health focused organizations that use art as a means of therapeutic treatment, Lisa is building the professional skills of individuals living with severe mental illness in multiple artistic disciplines. In addition, Lisa is creating a Canadian society that is more educated and empathetic towards severe mental health issues. By this, she is facilitating the entry and re-entry of individuals with mental illness into society through income generation and increased employment opportunities.

Opening doors for people living with mental illness to engage in creative activities, Lisa focuses on the exchange of ideas between artist and observer. This enables shared collective experiences through performances and works of art while establishing respect and value between artist and observer. Lisa is also contributing to the skill development and self-worth of individuals living with mental illness and addiction while inviting the general public to re-examine and discard negative stereotypes they may hold. Lisa targets multiple sectors and audiences in order to foster the professional growth and sector recognition of Workman Arts members.

Crucial to driving a paradigm shift in mindsets surrounding mental illness is her insistence that Workman Arts members are recognized as professional artists first, educators of the public, second and individuals living with –rather than suffering from- mental health illness, last. Lisa is redefining the role of all persons with mental illness in every artistic, educational and entertainment medium. This interaction between artist and audience at performances and art exhibitions increases the artists’ sense of ability and economic potential while eroding the stigma of mental illness and prioritizing the value inherent in all individuals.

Lisa’s work has been instrumental in changing the way in which Canadian society engages with mental illness and its treatment. Lisa is now establishing her work and theory of change on an international scale, bringing together strategic stakeholders wanting to adopt and replicate models of her programming. She is also establishing Workman Arts as a much needed, international hub of best practices for working in the area of arts and mental health.

El problema

One in five Canadians will suffer from a mental illness within their lifetime. In 2006, mental illness was the leading cause of hospitalization for Canadians between the ages of 15-34 years old and the second leading cause for individuals 35-44 years old. With nearly 1 million Canadians currently living with severe and persistent mental illness, including 1% of Canadians suffering from schizophrenia, 8% from major depression and 12% from anxiety disorder, mental health is a present and persistent issue within Canadian society .Yet despite its prevalence, most Canadians do not have a comfortable working knowledge of the signs and symptoms of the various mental illnesses, nor are they confident in open discussion about mental health issues.

The general stigma surrounding mental health issues ultimately causes people who are symptomatic to nonetheless forego diagnosis and treatment. For example, nearly 20% of Canadians who claim to have experienced at least three out of nine tested symptoms associated with mental illness did not seek professional help at the time they exhibited the symptoms. Only half of Canadians will tell friends and co-workers that they have a family member living with mental illness. In fact, Canadians are more likely to comfortable discuss family illnesses linked to diabetes and cancer than discuss issues pertaining to mental illness. This inability of the general public to recognize and / or acknowledge mental illness in themselves or others is most likely associated with the shame and stigma that persists today. Almost half of all Canadians believe that on some level, individuals use mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior. There is a lack of understanding that mental health issues are real; and that like a person recovering from a physical illness, people can, and do, recover from mental illness.

The preconception that mental illness is a disability can have cascading effects on individuals who are diagnosed. Individuals with mental illness may come to see themselves as severely disabled. This perspective can often be reinforced by health care workers, family members, friends, media outlets and society as a whole. Less than one third of Canadians would hire a landscaper if they knew the individual had a mental illness, far less would hire a financial advisor, a child care worker, or a lawyer if they knew the individual suffered from a mental illness. The percentages drop even more significantly if they perceive the individual to have a severe mental illness or substance addition. With this diagnosis sufferers become members of a disadvantaged and socially excluded population. Lisa is capitalizing on the extraordinarily creative and artistic abilities of individuals with mental illness to prove to society that mental illness is not incompatible with societal value.

La estrategia

Lisa founded Workman Arts in response to the increasing inspiration she found in the artistic abilities and potential of her patients while working as a psychiatric nurse in Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Since 1987, Lisa has been a pioneer and leading influencer in merging the concepts of arts and mental health, creating the oldest and largest multidisciplinary arts and mental health company in Canada and supporting artists professionally to achieve their highest potential within the artistic community.

Lisa’s critical interventions are aimed at the root causes that create distance between the general public and those with mental illness: lack of understanding about mental illness and the loss of personal power as a result of the stigma of mental illness. Lisa simultaneously addresses stigma and discrimination, while improving the economic potential and self-worth of artists who have mental health issues. Lisa first ensures that individuals are able to regain and enrich their sense of self by changing their self-perspective from one that is negative to one that is positive. She creates psychologically safe communal spaces for artistic creation and provides the tools to train artists in four different media: literary arts, media arts, performing arts and visual arts.

Lisa creates professional connections between emerging artists, their peers, and other industry professionals, while also challenging industry norms. This opens opportunities for emerging artists with mental illness to create within their industries. Focusing on their own talents rather than their perceived disabilities, participants are able to have an identity separate from their illness. The works of art produced are then put on public display in exhibitions, theatre productions and through publications. The events built around the artwork are used as platforms for open dialogue whereby paying audiences are invited and encouraged to learn how individuals with mental illness can and do play a unique role in public education and awareness about mental health and addiction issues in Canada.

In order to further re-enforce the artists’ sense of equality and positive self-worth, Lisa, through Workman Arts, pursued recognition with national arts associations like the Canadians Actor’s Equity Association (CAEA), which negotiates and administers scale agreements and policies on behalf of actors to ensure fair market wages. In every instance, artists are paid fair market value for their time and their artistic work. Thus, Lisa very rarely enlists the help of volunteers, mandating instead that paid work opportunities within Workman Arts, be offered to Workman Arts members first and foremost.Lisa insists on changing the language used when discussing mental health issues.

With a clear mandate to de-institutionalize and humanize the vocabulary used to describe people with mental health issues, Workman Arts has challenged societal norms in an effort to change terms and definitions. Specifically, Lisa promotes the language “people who receive mental health services”, rather than other terms such as “patient”, “psychiatric survivor” and “consumer survivor”. Lisa’s terminology was initially challenged as it did not fit linguistic norms at the time, but due to her persistence it was later accepted by the Canadian government when she sought incorporation of Workman Arts in 1991..In addition, Workman Arts deliberately, publicly and controversially reclaims the term “madness,” advocating for the universality of the term as one that is positive and does not stigmatize those who receive mental health services.

In order to ensure participants are consistently connected to the medical services and support that they may need throughout their time with Workman Arts, Lisa establishes partnerships between Workman Arts and medical mental health facilities. One such partnership is with CAMH, Canada’s leading mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as an international research hub in the area of addiction and mental health issues. This mutually beneficial relationship allows for CAMH to expand in its public education and awareness initiatives, while Workman Arts benefits from the medical knowledge base, research opportunities and financial contributions that a partnership with a leading research hospital can provide.

Workman Arts launched Rendezvous in the Classroom, a unique program offering films suited for children and youth, selected by youth (some of whom have mental illnesses themselves) and accompanied by discussions with the filmmakers and mental health workers. In 2011, the program reached more than 6,000 students, offering an age appropriate and accessible introduction to issues that affect 20% of the Canadian population at some point in their lives. Workman Arts has also ventured into high fashion, through Mad Couture Catwalk, a runway-style presentation of wearable couture by Workman Arts members. Presented in 2012 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mad Couture Catwalk vied for recognition from the international fashion community by petitioning to take part in Toronto’s International Fashion Week in 2013.

Lisa’s reach extends across Canada and around the globe. In 1992, she founded the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, the largest and longest running annual film festival on mental health issues in Canada. Lisa’s formula for successful knowledge building and stimulating dialogue that challenges stereotypes, is to make sure that each film in the festival addresses mental health and/or addiction, and that every program is followed by a panel discussion with the audience that includes a mental health specialist, the filmmaker and a person with lived experience similar to the one in the film.

Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival has been replicated in five cities across Canada. Lisa leverages partnerships with media outlets to further disseminate messages about the stigmas associated with mental illness and utilizes mainstream media to ensure that severe mental illness portrayed publicly, is done with an empathetic lens. Using the successes and achievements of the Rendevous with Madness Film Festival, Lisa influences international dialogue about mental illness and arts through her launch of the Madness and the Arts World Festival (MAF, founded 2003) in collaboration with CAMH and Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. MAF is the world’s first arts festival devoted to celebrating the creativity of individuals living with mental health issues, while inspiring deep conversation around issues surrounding mental health. In the time since its launch, MAF has scaled to three countries, Canada, Holland and Germany, and had 35,972 visitors to 17 venues where 14 different forms of creative presentations have been performed by 842 individuals affected by mental health issues from 29 countries.

Most recently, Lisa was invited by the regional government of Nanjing to hold the next Madness and the Arts World Festival in China. She is currently working with government officials and event organizers to bring a culturally relevant model of MAF to China in late 2013.Lisa continues to plan more extensive international scaling of her work with the creation of a global, Toronto based hub of mental health issues and the arts. Currently being called the Creative Arts Healing Centre, the hub is part of the CAMH redevelopment strategy for 2014-2017. The Centre will continue to support artists with mental illness and addiction in their professional development while also acting as an international knowledge base for mental health practices. This fully-accessible arts and learning centre will include a 300-seat theatre, storefront visual art gallery, artists’ studios, an international mental health academic catalogue, digital media studio and rehearsal and will be open to all members of Canada’s arts community, solidifying the identity of the person, and the artist outside of the patient.

La persona

Lisa grew up having personal direct experiences with mental illness and addiction among close family members. She watched her close relatives succeed in life in spite of their illnesses and in spite of the stigma they endured. She discovered at an early age that individuals with mental health issues were not “disabled” as the language and societal perceptions implied.

Her father was an entrepreneur and although Lisa admired his entrepreneurial spirit, she found love and passion in the music industry and harboured aspirations as a teen to pursue a career in jazz. Family pressures persuaded her to seek a more practical professional path, and Lisa decided to explore a career in nursing. While obtaining her degree, Lisa had an intriguing conversation with an animator who also happened to be dealing with psychosis. Remembering her family experiences and being captivated by the richness in the outlook of this particular patient, Lisa focused her nursing degree on psychiatry.

After graduating and getting her first job at CAMH, Lisa began an informal arts program with patients during her evening shift as a nurse. Seeing the social affects her arts program was having on the patients, Lisa petitioned centre administrator’s to formalize her program and fund the production of a play which allowed the patients to use their newly developed skills in artistic expression to communicate their experiences to the rest of the hospital staff.

In 1987, Lisa founded The Workman Arts Project, named after Joseph Workman, the second superintendent of the centre in 1850. She was inspired by Joseph Workman’s method of patient treatment, which included a strong emphasis on empathy, and was an innovator in mental health issues for his time. Since then, Lisa has dedicated her life to the growth of Workman Arts and the creative, psychological and professional growth of individuals living with mental illness and addiction in Canada and around the world.