Guiding a light on mental health this January

It can be a difficult time of year for people with mental health issues. NICOLA DEPUIS reveals a festival that aims to tackle problems, which is taking place in Cork and nationwide.
Guiding a light on mental health this January
Poet Tony Walsh is taking part in an event as part of the First Fortnight festival, in De Barras, Clonakilty, on January 13. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images.

AS the celebrations of the festive season fade in our minds, early January can be a difficult time of year for everyone, but especially for those suffering from mental health issues.

A new festival which began in Cork this week aims to provide the perfect pick-me-up.

First Fortnight is an event dedicated to the art of mental health.

It was launched in Dublin in 2010 after a conversation by former flatmates David Keegan and JP Swaine about mental health in Ireland, and has since spread to other parts of the country.

David, a psychotherapist, and JP, a social worker, were concerned about the high suicide rate among young males, the stigma around talking about mental illness and the need to bring subjects out of the dark and into public discussion.

First Fortnight is dedicated to challenging the stigma and preconceptions about mental health through arts and cultural action.

Since then it has continued to grow and this year there will be First Fortnight events in 17 counties around Ireland organised by nearly 100 volunteers. Several events such as film screenings and talks by poets are taking place across Cork in the fortnight. See the panel at the end for more details.

Board member and communications worker Michael Quinn feels that Cork is the perfect fit for such a festival.

“Cork has a pretty extensive line-up this year as we had a few very successful events there already last year,” he said. “It seems a perfect fit for our festival in terms of population, arts community and the vibrancy of the city in general.

“Mental health stigma is an issue throughout Ireland and Europe, and so Cork, being the second city, is a good place to focus our energies more and more.”

Michael is one of 12 committee members who work around the year to ensure the success of the mental health arts festival.

As well as running the festival, they also operate the First Fortnight Centre for Creative Therapies in Smithfield, Dublin. This helps people experiencing homelessness and those at risk of homelessness through art and music therapy.

The committee members have also partnered with a number of like-minded organisations across Europe and will host Europe’s Mental Health Arts Festival here in Ireland.

January was specifically chosen as the month to host this annual festival because of its associations with darkness and suicide.

“This is typically a time of a lot of suicide, depression, self-reflection and anxiety in Ireland,” says Michael.

“A lot of people’s instinct is to hibernate and perhaps turn away from the world a little - we wanted to provide a space that would be open to conversation about mental health but also a place that would be entertaining, thought-provoking and inspiring. It’s a way to reconnect and hopefully to gain something during the darkest time of the year.”

Using mental health themed art works including film, theatre, literature, spoken word and music as the centre point for these discussions, First Fortnight encourages the open discussion of all elements of mental health and Michael adds that seeing this in action has been the most rewarding aspect of working with First Fortnight.

“To hear questions from audience members, participants and concert-goers that you know have been on their minds for some time, and then to see artists and mental health professionals engage with those questions in a safe space, is truly refreshing and a source of hope.

“All the while, the stigma of mental health is being challenged. This is very important as the message is always at the forefront of the festival.”

So, why choose the arts to challenge this stigma?

“The arts have always divided opinion, and as such it has always been engaging and provocative. If we have preconceptions about something, it is often the arts and particularly hearing somebody else’s story that can challenge these perceptions,” explains Michael. “This is very true of mental health through the arts. When someone expresses their experiences on a stage or through their art, we naturally compare our own and often it sheds some light on something that was perhaps concealed to us before.”

As this material can be challenging at times and triggering for some people. As part of their induction, volunteers at the festival receive specific training which focuses on facilitating the volunteer with the tools to comfort and communicate with distressed audience members.

“This has proved invaluable over the years,” adds Michael, “as we have always offered a programme of diverse events which on occasion can trigger memories or sensations for audience members.

“It’s something we keep at the forefront of our minds at all times, and always hope to be able to aid someone who might find some of the content difficult.

“We also have a number of mental health professionals on our board and the wider organisation who are there to support at many of the events.”

In the eight years since First Fortnight began, many public figures have stepped forward to speak about their own struggles with mental illness including musician Bressie, author Marian Keyes and Cavan GAA player Alan O’ Mara.

“Irish society is definitely opening up more to the idea that it’s ok not to be ok, and that once we start talking to each other, often the cloud becomes less gloomy, “ says Michael.

“The media, thankfully, reflects this, but the truth is that this has been made possible by some extraordinarily brave people who have been willing to share their stories.

“We’ve been lucky to have countless numbers of brave and gifted storytellers —whether through song, art, poetry, theatre or whatever — and they will continue to share stories this year.

“The arts have a great knack of shedding light — sometimes that’s all we need.”

For more information on First Fortnight, go to:

* Help and support is available and the HSE encourage people to make contact with the following 24/7 supports:

Pieta House - 1800 247 247; The Samaritans 116 123 or text ‘help’ to 087 2609090;

Childline 1800 666 666, or text ‘talk’ to 50101.

Anyone in crisis can get support through their GP or the Southdoc service which is available on 1850 335 999 or


Festival Events in Cork City & County:

January 11, 7.30pm, Triskel Arts Centre, Cork City

Loving Vincent, Film screening and discussion in association with Cork Film Festival

Loving Vincent is a fully painted animated feature, starring Douglas Booth and Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.

Itt explores the life and controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh, told by his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. The film will be followed by a post-show panel discussion featuring Sandra Hickey, painting animator/artist on Loving Vincent.

January 11, 7pm, Uillinn, West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen

The Drummer & the Keeper, film screening

One of the outstanding Irish films of 2017, The Drummer & The Keeper tells the story of the unlikely friendship formed between two young men; Gabriel, a reckless young drummer with bipolar disorder, who revels in rejecting society’s rules, and Christopher, a 17-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome, who yearns to fit in.

It was written and directed by Nick Kelly, whose short film Shoe was shortlisted for an Academy Award.

January 12, 10.45am, 49 North Street, Skibbereen

Let’s Meet @ 49 North Street Skibbereen

49 North Street is home to a creative wellness and recovery initiative by Cork Mental Health Services.

Join a walking group, hear live musical performances, learn about the Stories of Recovery project with award-winning documentary maker Leanne O’Donnell and guests, and view artwork from the West Cork Mental Health Services arts and health programme.

January 13, 8pm, De Barras, Clonakilty

Therapy Sessions — Music, Poetry and Spoken Word

Featuring electro three-piece Wiggle, singer-songwriters Míde Houlihan and Eoin O’Neill, and poet Tony Walsh, who many will know for his inspiring poem This is the Place which he performed following last May’s Manchester Arena bomb attack.

January 14, 12pm, Blackrock Castle

Leads 2 Better Mental Health

In association with Leads 2 Love, Ireland’s only online dating site for dog lovers, First Fortnight presents Leads 2 Better Mental Health. Dog-lovers are invited to come together to enjoy a dog-filled day in the outdoors for walks and chats. Afterwards, have coffee in the castle grounds with your dog and continue the conversation. Dog owners and dog lovers (who don’t have dogs) are welcome.

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