BACK IN 2009, David Keegan and his friend and former flatmate JP Swaine got chatting about mental health in Ireland: the incredibly high suicide rate among young males; the stigma around talking about mental illness; the need to bring subjects out of the dark and into public discussion.
“It wasn’t a very prevalent conversation at the time,” said Keegan.
Out of that conversation came First Fortnight, an arts festival inspired by Swaine’s work as a social worker and psychotherapist, and Keegan’s love of the arts. They wanted to use their interests to put together an event that would get mental health onto the national agenda.
The festival has evolved as the years have gone on, going from an arts-only festival (with a mental health theme) in year one to an event that has many different strands of art, discussion, conversation salons, and even an early-morning rave.
A different sort of Proclamation
Its opening event for 2016 will be The Proclamation at Christ Church Cathedral this Friday (1 January) at 7pm, where a host of public faces – like Newstalk’s Chris Donoghue, Headstrong CEO Tony Bates, and actress Mary McEvoy – will speak about their experiences with mental illness. The High Hopes Choir and Colm Mac Con Iomaire will also perform at the event.
With many public figures coming out to talk about their experiences of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, it seems the Ireland of 2016 will be very different to that of 2009.
Does Keegan feel that First Fortnight has contributed towards today’s wider conversation about mental health in Ireland?
“I’d like to think we have,” said Keegan. “There’s a hell of a lot more organisations than there were in 2009 when we started, so it would be nice to think we inspired people to do their own thing and get involved when they can.”
He sees it as an ongoing mission, with much road still left to travel.
“It’s ongoing. People say to me every year, ‘isn’t it great, it’s a more public conversation that needs to be had more often’. In certain demographics, we’re among the worst in Europe. One in four of us will suffer from mental illness in our life, but it’s still not a conversation the majority of us would be comfortable to have in the pub.”
He’s proud to hear from people who’ve brought pals along who were struggling, and who were inspired to seek out help after First Fortnight.
He’s also been hearing more from friends about their trials and tribulations. “It took me a long time to come around to being comfortable with that conversation,” he says.
Embracing the art
“We’re really proud of how people have taken it to heart,” said Keegan of the festival. ”We pride ourselves in programming high quality arts because that’s what people come to see.”
“We are just inundated with people sending in work or scripts,” said Keegan, adding that throughout each year they spot work that they would like to commission for First Fortnight.
Aside from the festival, they also run a creative art therapy programme for homeless people in Dublin city.
Planning for the future
A volunteer board runs the festival and the events are delivered by around 90 volunteers. ”There’s a lot of people out there doing good work who are really struggling to maintain their services. We are only able to manage what we do as we are a voluntarily-run organisation,” said Keegan.
When it comes to the politics of the matter, they partner with groups like Mental Health Reform Ireland, and Keegan said what they are looking for from the government is “a proper commitment to actual investment in mental health services in the country”.
He is also interested in seeing where mental health lies on the agenda of those looking to be elected in the upcoming general election.
The beginning of the year can be tough so by taking place at the start of January, First Fortnight aims to give people some positive thoughts for the upcoming year.
It’s also a time when people will be reflecting back on Ireland’s history, which may in turn spark thoughts for Ireland’s future and how mental health is treated.
“We’re the first event of the New Year to mark the [1916 Rising] centenary with The Proclamation, so it’s a pretty bold move – but we’re really excited about it. We can’t wait,” said Keegan.
To find out more about all the events during First Fortnight, and to buy tickets, visit the official website.