New Brunswick

Struggles with being human: How puppets can combat depression

According to a Canadian Mental Health Association survey, more than half of Canadians consider anxiety and depression to be an "epidemic." Two Fredericton women are trying to help combat it.

2 Fredericton women use puppetry to tackle early signs of depression and self-doubt in children

Anne Lebans and Rebecca Tremblay are the founders of It's Ok to be Awesome, a Fredericton program dedicated to help chilidren and their mental health. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Anne Lebans and Rebecca Tremblay have built their careers on playing with puppets.

They lug large, colourful, googly-eyed characters all over the province and can quickly bring them to life through the art of puppetry.

The Fredericton women hope these dolls made of felt and fake fur will change the way people talk about mental illness among young people.

"It just brings out this joie-de-vivre," said Tremblay.

Almost three years ago, Lebans and Tremblay formed It's OK to be Awesome, a Fredericton business designed to help children deal with mental illness using puppets.

They do this by bringing their puppets to different schools and public spaces. There, they give presentations and skits. Children also create their own puppet shows, which they eventually present to parents and peers.

For instance, in the fall they visited a Grade 2 class at Nackawic Elementary School, where students learned how to use puppets and created their own skits about inclusion and healthy relationships. 

The goal is to teach kids about self-awareness and empowerment and to slow the increase in mental illness among adults.

And the puppet approach is catching on.

The Fredericton women have received requests from all across Canada and the United States to help tackle mental health problems  among children.

"We grow up thinking that we have to search out there for the perfect person to fill our cup and make us feel loved," said Tremblay, who spent many years struggling with low self-esteem.

"At the end of the day, the only person who can give us that true feeling of love is ourselves, through our own self-acceptance."

Meet Tez, one of the puppets featured in the program. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

The program has been endorsed by the Canadian Mental Health Association of New Brunswick, which describes it as a community resource that connects with kids.

The program helps children be better prepared for their teenage years, where mental health issues typically begin to surface,  said spokesperson Lori Wheeler.

"The positive mental health teachings and messages through the It's OK to be Awesome puppets, aim to create and encourage positive self-talk and self-image to empower kids as they grow in life," she said. "And we think that's awesome."

Mental illness not so uncommon

Since she was 12, Lebans said, she has fought bouts of depression that sneak into her life at unpredictable times.

"I thought there was something wrong with me, and I really became hard on myself and had a really harsh inner dialogue."

"Everyone is going to struggle with being human."

Introducing Lady Zara. She sings both opera and pop. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

As she got older, Lebans learned she wasn't alone.

Working as a life coach, she realized low self-esteem is a huge problem among adults, working professionals and even after retirement.

Lebans believes this is why the number of people who suffer from stress, anxiety and depression has skyrocketed.

Puppets are this magic key element that really connects with children.- Rebecca Tremblay

In 2016, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said one in five people experiences some form of mental illness before the age of 40.

After 40, that number increases to one in two Canadians.

That same year, Statistics Canada reported that almost 4,000 Canadians died by suicide.

And in 2013, the commission said more than 800,000 Canadian youth experienced significant mental health problems. Many of them didn't receive treatment.

"Empowering the children with these tools earlier is going to help them have a much more happy, much more productive life, a much more lovely life," Lebans said.

Why puppets?

Each of the puppets has its own personality, which kids love when they watch the skits. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

Tremblay, who's also a certified teacher and has worked all around the world, says puppetry helps connect with children in a way that adults can't.

Inside her classes, children who would typically give "yes" or "no" answers, contribute to full conversations and even make presentations with the help of puppets.

"Puppets are this magic key element that really connects with children," said Tremblay, who discovered her love for puppets in university.

Depression an 'epidemic'  

The duo also cater their puppet performances to different needs and address a variety of topics.

They work with military families living in New Brunswick and children whose parents have been deployed.

"A child will open up if she's got a puppet on her hand and she wants to talk about her dad just being deployed, and she's feeling sad," Lebans said.

A favourite puppet among children is Fairy Godfather, a character Lebans and Tremblay created themselves. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

According to a Canadian Mental Health Association survey, more than half of Canadians consider anxiety and depression to be an "epidemic."  

That's why, Tremblay and Lebans are also hoping to launch a television or web series to help children and adults tackle mental illness.

Eventually, they want to implement video curriculum in classrooms across New Brunswick.

"When you're having fun you can learn so much better," said Tremblay.

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