Ashley Smith tragedy takes centre stage

(Contributed photo)
(Contributed photo)

In recent years, a dialogue regarding mental health has been slowly growing but there is always room for more discussion. University of Waterloo’s (UW) drama department is blowing the topic wide open with their performance based on how a young woman with mental health issues was treated in 2007 by the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario.

The performance, entitled From Solitary to Solidarity: Unraveling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith, follows the life of Ashley Smith and how government institutions treated her during her incarceration. The play also focuses on the challenges that she had to face and relates to how mental health is treated in university settings.

For those unfamiliar with the 2007 tragedy, Ashley Smith was a 19-year-old young woman who died at The Grand Valley Institution for Women. Dealing with depression and urges to self-harm from early childhood continuing up until her suicide, her case was mainly written off by the state and she was denied the help she needed to fully cope with the challenges she faced.
Placed in solitary confinement in almost every correctional facility she was transferred to, Smith lived in isolation for almost four years. The law requiring mandatory review of prisoners kept in isolation for more than two months was not followed due to her frequent transfers from one institution to the next.

The inquest following her death ruled it a homicide, as Ashley had been on suicide watch, yet the guards witnessed her strangle herself in her cell. The guards did not enter her cell for nearly half an hour.

Andy Houston, an associate professor of the University of Waterloo’s drama department, felt that this event needed to be brought into the spotlight and decided to direct a play as a result.

“I started thinking about Ashley Smith in early 2011. There were a disturbing number of cases of women who clearly needed help that they weren’t getting through the system,” said Houston.

Houston, being the father of two teenagers and a professor teaching young adults explained that, “there was something that really disturbed me about a teenager misbehaving and getting that kind of response”.

The play was written by UW alum Melanie Bennett in collaboration with UW drama students. It was directed by Houston, who clarified, “It’s really about creativity, a performance that’s responding to how the group is thinking and discussing … It’s really important to me that the students have a voice in it … It’s a form of creative performance that’s really trying to get as many voices into the final product as possible.”

Houston expounded upon how he believed that many university students would be able to relate to this particular performance.

“I think this has to do with something every teenager can understand, as I believe that the situations in which education occurs is becoming more and more stressful for everybody, in particular the students,” he said.

“I think it’s just really important to have a conversation about mental health because there’s a huge stigma around it, and the stigma is really saying ‘you can’t keep up’ or ‘ there’s something wrong with you’ or ’you can’t do well in this place.’ Understanding mental health means that we really have to question some of the values that are part of university learning that seem to make it hard for kids to talk about the things they’re struggling with.”

Officially opening March 19, tickets are on sale at $13 for students and seniors and $17 for general audiences. There is also an interactive exhibit on mental health open on the days the production is being performed. On March 21 there is symposium being held, which is an opportunity for the audience to talk about the purpose of the performance and share their views.

More information on From Solitary to Solidarity: Unraveling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith can be found at, the production’s official University of Waterloo website.

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