BWS 09.14.22 report: Writing & Survival: Tips for Mad, Sad, and Neurodiverse People

Kathy Friedman is a writer, teacher, editor, and the co-founder of InkWell Workshops, which delivers free literary programming to people with mental health and addiction issues. She studied creative writing at UBC and the University of Guelph, and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Grain, Geist, PRISM international, Canadian Notes & Queries, and the New Quarterly. In 2022, her short fiction debut, All the Shining People, was published by House of Anansi. She lives in Tkaronto/Toronto, where she is at work on a collection of essays about travel, music, and mental health. Find out more at

Writing & Survival: Tips for Mad, Sad, and Neurodiverse People

By Kathy Friedman

From the Canada Council: “Mad arts are created by people who live with Madness and are an expression of Mad Pride. The term “Mad” has been reclaimed by people who identify as living with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities and symbolizes pride, collective identity and community building. Within this context, mental illness is not framed as pathology, but rather as integral to identity and experiences shaped by social determinants of health such as income, social status, employment, working conditions, housing and food security.”

Mad culture, including distinct and innovative literature, is thriving. Mad writers who I think are producing (or have produced) some of our most exciting literature include Roxanna Bennett, Janet Frame, Rowan McCandless, Terese Mailhot, Erin Soros, Esmé Weijun Wang, and Syrus Marcus Ware.

I would like to have called this presentation “Writing & Thriving,” but I don’t think we’re there yet. Mad folks still need far better access to secure housing, good food, clean water, and the abolition of carceral forms of punishment, surveillance, and care. Still, liberation and joy are always bound up in revolutionary art and storytelling, and as writers we have an important role to play in the Mad rights movement.

I use the following tools to manage my mental health and to keep writing through adversity:

  • Community: Truly what sustains me as a writer. My literary community includes writer friends, other Mad folks, writing mentors, and my students. Expressing gratitude and maintaining a spirit of generosity have helped me foster this community.
  • Self-Care: A relentless process (at least for me) that includes taking walks, exercising, treating myself, taking baths, cat and dog cuddles, setting and maintaining boundaries, giving myself props and encouragement, and remembering to breathe.
  • Medication: Although I experience some side effects, taking psychiatric meds helps me feel more emotionally stable.
  • Therapy: For the last ten years, I’ve participated in group therapy, support groups, and ongoing individual counselling. I’m always willing to put my name on waitlists for OHIP-covered therapy, but I also prioritize the cost of counselling as a necessary expense (along with food and rent).
  • Rest: I take breaks and afternoon naps. I don’t write every day (not even close). I try my best not to compare my productivity to other writers. And I sleep in whenever I can.

Community Resources

InkWell Workshops

  • Delivers free, high-quality literary programming to people living with mental health and addiction issues (I’m the co-founder and artistic director).
  • Currently has a call for applications for writers with lived experience to work with an experienced mentor on a book-length project; the writer will be given a $500 honorarium.

Open Minds Quarterly

  • A literary journal published by NISA / Northern Institute for Social Action in Sudbury
  • Welcomes writing and art from people with “lived experience of what is variously called mental health challenges, mental illness, madness, neurodiversity, etc.”
  • Runs an annual poetry contest.

Community Health Centres

  • Offer free individual and group counselling provided by registered social workers, in addition to other primary care services.
  • Focused on communities that experience barriers to accessing health care (2SLGBTQ, unhoused people, refugees, etc.).
  • Usually accept clients based on catchment area; some accept trans and/or unhoused clients from across Toronto.

Artists Health Centre

  • Located on Bathurst just south of College.
  • A nurse-practitioner-led medical and complementary clinic for professional artists.
  • Through the Joysanne Sidimus Fund, services can be subsidized for artists in financial need so they only pay 25% of the cost (e.g., RMT, physiotherapy, psychotherapy, etc.).

Affordable Medication

  • Ask your health care provider to request free samples from the manufacturer for you. They can usually do this multiple times.
  • If your income is low and your prescription costs are high, register for the Ontario Trillium Drug Program, so no more than 4% of your income will go to pay for meds.
  • Speak to your pharmacist about getting a manufacturer’s incentive card (if applicable).

Workman Arts

  • A multidisciplinary arts organization in Toronto that supports artists living with mental health and addiction issues.
  • Offers training programs and public partnerships and presentations.
  • I find that dabbling in art forms other than writing helps my mental health and creativity.

Arts Councils

  • As a disabled artist, you can get funds from each of the arts councils to pay a service provider (e.g., an experienced artist/grant writer) to help you complete your grant application.
  • If your application is successful, you can also apply for accessibility funds to address barriers that prevent you from completing your project. For example, I’ve received accessibility funds from the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) to pay for counselling while I’m writing triggering creative nonfiction material.
  • The Canada Council for the Arts has a Disability Arts program and the Ontario Arts Council has a program for Deaf and Disability Arts Projects. This means that your application can be assessed by an interdisciplinary jury of other disabled artists rather than a literary jury.
  • Be sure to reach out to the program officers before you apply: they’re awesome!

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