Celebrating International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders
November 29th is the International day for Women Human Rights Defenders. It’s an opportunity to highlight the work of people advocating for women’s rights and women advocating for human rights around the world. We are fortunate to have people doing that work in our own communities and this year, Melanie Knapp was nominated as the feature of the Nov 29 article.
For the last eight years, Melanie has been actively organizing and advocating to improve the experience of people hospitalized because of their mental health in Grey Bruce. She founded the group Comfort and Care, wrote and published books about experiences of hospitalization and wellness strategies after release, organized arts events and holiday pizza meals for people in hospital, and participated in systems change advocacy.
Melanie’s mental health began to interfere with her life in her late twenties. She took those experiences as initial inspiration for advocacy and had already been speaking in schools and publicly to raise awareness by 2012 when she was hospitalized in. During that stay in the Owen Sound hospital, Melanie recognized that there were ways to improve the experiences of people in care.
Six months after being released she wrote to a local politician to express the needs she saw and had heard other patients express. Melanie was concerned about the rates of medication, lack of colour on the unit, the challenge of patient advocacy for self-release, and insufficient availability of care items like personal blankets. Her letter was well received and Melanie was introduced to the patient relations lead at the hospital. Together, they started to plan ways to improve the experience.
That conversation led to public organizing and the donation of more than one thousand blankets by the community. Walls and doors were painted to add more colour to the unit. Patient time in the art room increased. Melanie organized artists and musicians to visit the unit as well as speakers to give talks.
For Melanie, art and creativity are especially important.
“In talking to people one thing that really helps people heal is the art. It helps people process art and pain, feel good about themselves and be able to talk to each other to say “it’s really amazing that you did that”. It opens up positive communication” she said.
In the years since those initial changes Melanie has helped to organize an annual coffee house where patients and the community can share art and connect. Melanie gathered resources, stories, and poems to write a book about healing while in hospital and what individuals can do to heal. She encourages people to make safety lists, goals, affirmations, and support one another. After the success of the first book, she felt there was need for another book about what to do after you’re out of hospital to give people more courage and hope. So she wrote that book too.
“It’s such a different space to be in hospital and live there with all the bright lights, that space and to be confined there. When you’re home all of a sudden you have all these options. It’s about being good to yourself as you’re making that change. There are lists of community resources, art, and ways that you can journal to be helpful”.
Recently, Melanie’s work and the work of Comfort and Care has inspired other individuals to support mental health patients in their own ways from writing get well cards to collecting packages of personal toiletries for patients.
We recognize Melanie today because her story shows the positive impact that an individual can make in the lives of their community. It is difficult to advocate for change. It is difficult to open up about our own struggles and to share our personal stories as examples of why our systems must change. We are powerful, however, when we raise our voices to support the rights, wellness, and dignity of others.
Melanie chose to reach out and identify potential improvements in the lives of patients. She mobilized and inspired others to participate in that change and made a demonstrable difference. Today we recognize the potential that we all have to make positive change in the lives of vulnerable people. We also acknowledge the difficulty and danger that can come from advocating for that change both here and around the world. The work is challenging but it is also essential.
In Melanie’s own words: “as a community it looks good when we care about all people. It looks good and it feels good. So having less stigma is wonderful”.