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Dublin: 3°C Friday 26 February 2021

First Fortnight: "We can't just make people talk about mental health issues"

First Fortnight is an arts festival that wants to encourage us to think and talk about mental health. Here’s how.

The Happy Clouds exhibition by Stuart Semple, who has collaborated with Lady Gaga, launches First Fortnight.
The Happy Clouds exhibition by Stuart Semple, who has collaborated with Lady Gaga, launches First Fortnight.
Image: Conor McCabe Photography
“THE LAST THING we need to do is tell someone they have to talk about mental health.”

That is according to David Keegan, who along with JP Swaine founded the First Fortnight arts festival in 2009. First Fortnight is a festival with a difference – it aims to get people thinking and talking about mental health in Ireland.

Starting the conversation

Through a mixture of music, theatre, comedy, poetry and visual arts, it aims to stoke conversation around mental health issues in a natural way.

The debut First Fortnight festival took place in 2009, and this year it is partnered with Mental Health Reform, SpunOut.ie and See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership.

Today marks the first of 10 days of arts events challenging mental health prejudice, and for Keegan and Swaine, while a lot has been done, there is still – to paraphrase a certain political party – a lot more to do.

Keegan and Swaine both have a history of mental illness in their families, but are aware that a stigma can exist around this.

The reason stigma exists around mental health is that people find it difficult to talk about that particular subject matter. They don’t have the tools and don’t know how to have that conversation.

Their festival aims to provide space where people become comfortable enough to talk openly without fear of condemnation or judgement.

Throughout the past five years, artists and musicians have spoken about their experiences at the event, while a large number of people who attended First Fortnight have told the organisers that it has encouraged them or a friend to seek help.


There is now a working group of eight volunteers running the festival, which for the first time this year will be hosting events outside of Dublin. There will be 39 events throughout nine venues over the next 10 days.

Keegan said that when it comes to mental health worries, they want to “encourage people it should just be as easy as talking to a GP about a sore knee”.

He pointed out that “it is changing, but ultimately it’s a cultural thing” when it comes to people’s desire to talk about mental health.

[Change] is not going to come from simply an ad on TV telling people to mind their heads. The change needs to come from people, and the public’s perception of it being acceptable and important to talk about mental health.

Keegan noted the amount of money spent on road safety, and would like to see similar amounts spent on mental health awareness, particularly given the suicide rates in Ireland.

“One in four of us will suffer from mental illness at some point,” he said.

In February 2013, First Fortnight opened its own creative art therapy service, and the volunteers want to see this form of therapy recognised in the public system “as a form of getting people better”.

The shows

This year, the theatre show Dolls looks at the media and how it affects women’s mental health, while The Year of Magical Wanking looks at issues around sexuality that can affect men.

Showings of Silver Linings Playbook around the country will be followed by discussions on how mental health is examined in film.

Events called Therapy Sessions at Dublin’s Workman’s Club will involve poetry and acoustic music.

To find out more about the events around the country, visit the First Fortnight website.

Read: Arts-based mental health festival gets underway>


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