The awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes painful days of high school are a not-so distant memory for Surrey native Sarah Jickling.
The singer-songwriter, who performs under the moniker Sarah Jickling and Her Good Bad Luck, recalls her best efforts to blend in with the teenage crowd at Earl Marriott Secondary, largely going unnoticed by teachers who never could have known the struggles she had been hiding.
A decade after graduating, Jickling — who lives with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, OCD and PTSD — is part of a pilot project out of UBC called Wingspan, in which artists who happen to have disabilities help teach local high school students.
For Jickling, who is currently teaching several arts classes at Delview Secondary — including photography, recording arts and creative writing — one goal is to help students tap into their sense of identity through collaborative self expression.
“The thing about being in high school is you don’t want anyone to notice you. You want to blend in and disappear,” Jickling says. “If I’ve been able to get any of the students here to think about what revealing your identity to the world would mean, that’s a huge bonus. If you show people who you are, other people may have the same experiences and you’re going to feel less alone.”
Jickling first became involved with Wingspan after she became known in mental health circles throughout the Lower Mainland while speaking out about her struggles.
While she says the inspiration she gains from watching teens grow and blossom through art is rewarding, having gainful employment in a field such as teaching is something that can be out of reach for many who live with mental illness.
“It can be really hard for people with disabilities to get work, especially fulfilling roles like teaching,” she explains. “I know a lot of us live under the poverty line, and being treated like someone who has value is an amazing experience.”
Living with mental illness comes with its share of pain, Jickling admits, and she doesn’t shy away from incorporating her struggles into her art and sharing with the students.
“We all experience pain, no matter what. And one of the best things you can do is use your pain and turn it into art,” she explains.
For Grade 11 student Haley Gagnaux, one of the highlights of working with Jickling and fellow Wingspan artist Kelsie Grazier is learning to channel pain into a story, and use that story as inspiration for art.
Working with the artists in her photography class, Gagnaux says the perspective the two women have shared with the students has been well received.
“They gave us another perspective on the meaning that we put into our photos,” Gagnaux explains. “Instead of simply taking a photo just for the way it looks, we instead have learned how to put our own meaning into it.”
Grazier, who was born and raised in South Delta, is a visual artist who became profoundly deaf while completing her masters of education at UBC. She has been working with students at Delview over the eight-week Wingspan program in social studies, photography and art classes, and says she is grateful to be involved in a project that encourages discussion and exploration of disabilities such as her deafness.
“This is how we will create change and make a difference for the future,” she says. “I’m thrilled to be able to have the chance to work with students through art, about misunderstood topics such as deafness, disability and ableism.”
Though it’s a pilot program, Wingspan has been gaining attention from across the country, according to project lead Dr. Leslie Roman, UBC professor of educational studies.
In a release, Roman notes that a student and artist showcase is set for June in Vancouver, where the results of the project will be shared. A documentary film is also in works, she notes.
“Our attitudes toward people with disabilities need a major overhaul, and the place to start that change in mindset is in our public schools,” Roman says. “We are thrilled that Delview Secondary is having such great results that we can share with the rest of the country.”
For Jickling, once the project wraps up, she looks forward to focusing on her budding music career; she has a new album due for release in the fall entitled The Family Curse, which delves into the history of mental illness in her family.
“I hope to perform a lot more next year once the album is out, not just as a mental health advocate but as a musician, period,” she says. “Sometimes all my mental health advocacy can get in the way of my art and make me forget the real magic of music and performing.”
To find out more about Wingspan and the artists who have taken part, visit wingspan.educ.ubc.ca.