Breaking the Stigma: First Fortnight FestivalEzra Maloney speaks to the co-founder, Steve Cummins, about the First Fortnight festival, Ireland's first mental health festival, and the role that the arts plays in stopping stigma.[br]AFTER the excesses of the festive season, it's common for many of us to experience an anticlimactic or low feeling. January is, for many, the most depressing month of the year – New Year’s resolutions are made and broken, money is in short supply, and selection boxes are empty.In 2016, January 16th was given the unfavourable title of ‘Most Depressing Day of the Year’. Yet for many, depression lasts beyond January but the stigma and prejudice surrounding those with mental health issues prevents them from speaking openly about their issues and seeking help.Statistics have confirmed that Ireland is in the throes of a mental health crisis as it currently ranks 4th in the world for suicide rates among young men between the ages of 18 and 24.It was with a view towards eliminating this stigma through the medium of the creative arts that Steve Cummins, JP Swayne, and David Keegan, three graduates of UCD, founded the First Fortnight festival in January 2009. The festival was originally the brainchild of former UCDSU Welfare Officer, JP Swayne, who held the first event in lieu of a 30th birthday party.“It was after the first event that JP asked me to come on board, I was working as a music journalist for RTÉ, initially I came on board to organise the musical area. It was very much a grassroots organisation, we all knew each other from college” says Cummins.
“There was a lot of negative language around mental health in the Ireland I grew up in, people just didn’t talk about things.”The first two-week festival was held in 2012 after a series of popular one-off events with Cummins saying: “we picked January because it’s after Christmas and people feel more vulnerable to mental health issues. Finance was never a goal, we just want to get our message across and we believed the arts was the best medium to start a conversation about mental health.”The popularity of the festival, held annually since 2012 has seen enormous growth in the five years since its conception. It has even become a mental health service provider in 2013 with the formation of the First Fortnight Centre for Creative Therapies which provides art-therapy for those experiencing homelessness and mental illnesses in Dublin.Cummins believes that attitudes to mental health issues in Ireland are slowly improving with the help of media coverage and those who speak out about their own mental health, a subject which was once taboo in Irish society.“There was a lot of negative language around mental health in the Ireland I grew up in, people just didn’t talk about things. Even in 2009, there was no mental health coverage in the media, we felt that First Fortnight gave the media a reason to talk about and normalise mental health issues. Attitudes are changing and people are more understanding. Recovery begins by talking about things.”Using the arts as a platform to dismantle stigma towards mental illness has proved incredibly effective for the First Fortnight team who believe that art is therapeutic for those suffering from mental health issues. Art can break down barriers between people and make them feel at ease with discussing their problems, more so than a more direct method of challenging the stigma around mental health in Ireland. Cummins certainly feels this way:“There is no question that the arts are therapeutic – people love certain songwriters because although their music is sad you can relate to it and you say: ‘Jesus, someone else feels what I’m feeling, I don’t feel so alone.’”However, although the outlook toward mental health is changing, Cummins found that much of the general public still experience intense stigma and do not feel the freedom to openly discuss personal issues yet. He explained: “we did a survey last year on public attitude to mental health and we learned that 50% of people would not discuss their mental health issues with others. The stigma still exists around mental health.”
“Mental health is a universally relatable issue and when it is expressed through art we are drawn to it because we can see ourselves in the work.”Cummins believes that public opinion on mental health issues can be drastically altered by those who choose to speak out on the matter, praising Irish musician Bressie who revealed his struggle with mental illness in 2013. In recent years other celebrities such as Lady GaGa, Cara Delevinge, Miley Cyrus and many others have spoken out about their own mental health issues, no doubt something which has begun a much-needed conversation about mental health.In regards to choosing performers for the festival itself, Cummins prefers to choose those who have openly discussed mental health issues in their work: “we always programme music based on artists in the past who have openly discussed mental health issues such as Heathers, Girlband, and Verse Chorus Verse. Good art is about being honest and honest expression of your feelings and your place in the world. Mental health is a universally relatable issue and when it is expressed through art we are drawn to it because we can see ourselves in the work.”In the five short years since its beginning, there is no doubt that the First Fortnight festival has changed many attitudes towards mental health through entertainment and discussion. The festival only continues to grow and next year will host the world’s first mental health festival in Dublin, inviting performers from around the globe to discuss mental health issues through poetry, music, film and art.“Our goal is to eradicate mental health stigma and prejudice and affect some societal change. We want others to accept mental health issues as normal. Irish society is changing but there is more work to be done,” says Cummins.The work of this festival is crucial to changing our relationship with mental health in Ireland and the arts are an excellent way to begin and recognise change.