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Larissa’s story – An artist’s grounding place

“This place – this is my grounding place,” Larissa Healey says from the art room at Coast Mental Health’s Resource Centre. “It’s where I can come and feel safe. It’s a place where I can come and let people see me when I’m tired and ciphering through heavy emotions.”

Larissa, also known as Gurl23, is an Ojibway artist whose work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Anthropology, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Bill Reid Gallery and the Power Plant Gallery. She has been a client of Coast Mental Health for 17 years.

“I was in a lot of really bad gang stuff back then,” she remembers. “I decided to get out when I was 31 and I was traumatized by everything I’d been through.” Larissa lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and is also bipolar. She’s overcome addictions and experienced homelessness. While the Resource Centre has become a safe place for her, it wasn’t always like that.

“At first, I was still in fight or flight mode and so violent,” Larissa says, remembering how she struggled to engage with the staff initially. “I’d been through so much. Coast Mental Health gave me a place to come rest, eat something and start to recover.”

It was the Art Room that helped her overcome her initial fears.

“The Art Room wasn’t well designed back then or anything special but for me it didn’t matter,” she says. It was more important for her to finally have a space to exorcise years of emotions and untapped ideas.

Coast did more than give Larissa a space to develop as an artist while learning to manage her mental health.

“This place has helped me adjust to being an adult. When I first started coming, I didn’t have adult life skills.”

That lack of life skills hit her hard as her career as an artist took off and her talent meant she was frequently invited to exhibit her work at major galleries and even paint a mural for the National Gallery in Ottawa.

“I got really messed up because I couldn’t deal with the pressure of being at that level. All of the sudden I had to talk about contracts, go into shops, buy groceries. And when you’re tired and doing the best you can, you sometimes just go right back where you started.”

She remembers coming into the Resource Centre one day when it had all gotten too much.

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"I like who I am now. I am gentle and I am strong."

“I just came in and I stood there and I said help – I need help. I didn’t know where to go,” Larissa’s eyes fill with tears at the memory. “Someone came and said to me ‘Are you ok?’. Coast Mental Health was there.”

Today, Larissa uses her lived experience of gang life and mental illness to help at-risk First Nations youth. Her alias, Gurl23, is not just part of her identity as an artist. It also helps her in telling her story and connecting with youth.  23 is the age she was when she attempted suicide.

“I jumped off a roof but only broke my ribs when I landed. I was so mad that I didn’t die that I jumped up and almost got a hit by a bus,” she says. “That was a turning point. I apologized to myself and reversed the fight. I stopped fighting to end my live and began fighting to live.”

Larissa smiles. “I like who I am now. I am gentle and I am strong.”

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