By Brandon Gillet
Since it started in May, an inspiring mental health initiative launched by an equally inspiring uOttawa student has picked up steam. The #ConvoPlate project, featuring hand-painted stoneware plates that are circulated around the community, was created by common law student Jolene Hansell and her father, Brian, through the Paul Hansell Foundation, named for the 18-year-old brother she lost to suicide in December 2010.
“The #ConvoPlate was conceived as a way to get people talking about mental health in their everyday lives,” Jolene said. “A plate is easily portable — it’s something you can take when you go to someone’s house for dinner. Maybe you have hors d'oeuvre on it and, as the food comes off the plate, it sparks a conversation about mental health.”
To honour Paul’s memory and make a difference in the lives of other youth, the Hansells want mental health to become a normal conversational topic, as easily discussed as any other form of health.
“And we’re careful with the language we use,” Jolene said. “Lost to suicide or died by suicide is an important way to phrase it, because ‘committed’ suicide has a negative connotation and places blame on the individual.”
The Hansells partnered with the Art Gallery of Burlington to create an art therapy program to produce the plates. Young people create and decorate two plates over the course of two sessions at the gallery. Each plate bears the Paul Hansell Foundation logo and the messages “Let’s talk about mental health” and "Keep the conversation going." The young artists take one plate home for themselves, and their second is stamped with a number and sent out into the world to be passed from hand to hand.
Plates take off
The project officially began during Mental Health Week last May, when 43 plates entered circulation. Jolene says it has since taken off, with some prominent names taking part or becoming what they are calling a “thread lead,” the first person to start passing a plate around.
“Our biggest-name thread leads to date are Chris Hadfield, Roméo Dallaire and Margaret Trudeau,” she said. “Two plates have also been in the hands of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne."
“CSIS is the first government agency to take a plate, and we’re waiting to see where they pass it to,” Jolene said. She wants one to find its way into the hands of Minister for Youth (and Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau. “We would love to have him be part of this conversation.”
The #ConvoPlate website includes a map that tracks some of the plates’ travels. They have made their way to more than 30 members of Parliament, a dozen MPPs and three mayors, including Ottawa’s Jim Watson. Brian Hansell even took a plate to the steps of Buckingham Palace.
“My favourite story involves MP Charlie Angus, who presented his plate to students at a high school in Kirkland Lake,” Jolene said. “On their own, the kids have become obsessed with getting the plate to Rick Mercer and even made their own ‘rant’ about mental health to try to catch his eye.”
In addition to a master’s in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s in international development from uOttawa, Jolene has a certificate in dance education from the Royal Academy of Dance.
Paul Hansell was a musician and tap dancer. Last week, the Hansells organized a dance event at St. Paul High School in Ottawa, with proceeds going to their foundation.
At Dance Is My Expression, 32 Ottawa youth aged 6 to 18 performed pieces they choreographed themselves to convey anything they wanted to share with the world. The event featured a special guest, YTV host Carlos Bustamante, who was one of Paul’s first tap teachers. Bustamante tap-danced to a song that Paul had recorded.
“When you lose people, time goes by and you can’t remember their voice,” Jolene said. “But I put that song on and it catches me every time, because that’s my brother’s voice, captured forever.”