The Lady in the Fuchsia Skirt
Updated: May 6
A blog by Sinead Gormley
A couple of years ago I attended a play in the MAC, Cora Bissett’s ‘What girls are made of’. Autobiographical in nature, through Cora’s teenage diaries the audience follows her journey from remote Scottish town to relative fame with the all-girl nineties grunge band Darlingheart, touring with the likes of Blur and Radiohead. However, she quickly falls from the exhilarating highs, leaving her with a loss of purpose, crumbling finances and in later years a broken marriage and fertility struggles.
The play ended on a celebratory note, as we see Cora emerge from her lowest points to finding meaning in her life through healthier relationships and embracing motherhood in her fourth decade. I was sitting beside an older lady, impeccably groomed in a fuchsia pink skirt, and as we left the theatre she clutched my hand in delight and said, ‘that was so real to me’.
This has always stayed with me as something significant. How an individual being brave enough to share their experiences, positive and negative, can trigger a connection or shared understanding between two otherwise unacquainted individuals. I think it is safe to assume that neither I nor this lady had ever been on the road with Radiohead but we each responded to the raw honesty of Cora’s struggles, and this in turn connected us.
This snippet or small interaction forms the base of why I think festivals such as the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival (NIMHAF) can be so potent in their impact on Mental Health, especially in these unique times…..
Lockdown and the Northern Irish Psyche.
As we move through the uncharted territory of our present lockdown existence, it is important to recognise the difficulties faced by individuals living with mental health issues. Unable to access their Mental Health Services, attend vital face to face therapy or even carry out wellness or self care routines, there is little solace or comfort available. Young Minds survey found that 80% of young people with existing mental health concerns reported their condition as considerably worse since entering lockdown.
Compounding this, Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis has been well documented. With suicide rates that have overtaken the number of lives lost to conflict in the Troubles, it has the highest levels of mental illness across the United Kingdom per capita. As of 2018, only 6% of the health budget was dedicated to mental he
alth provision. This in itself sets a precedent for a region that needs a rethink around mental health provision and its place in our society.
The Role of NIMHAF.
In recent years there has been an increasing body of evidence to support the beneficial impact that the Arts can have in promoting positive mental health and well being in a society. Community based initiatives such as NIMHAF have a vital role to play in this. They can facilitate empowerment and recovery simply by creating a safe, accessible and nurturing space for people to consider the core issues surrounding mental health, both on an individual and societal level.
Founded in 2013, NIMHAF has celebrated and promoted awareness around mental health though exhibiting a range of arts events. Spanning across Northern Ireland, visual arts, photography, poetry, comedy and song are all embraced and each one of the commissioned works has been made by people who have lived experience of personal mental health issues.
Due to the pandemic, this year's festival, vitally, will be accessible online, set to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week from 18th-24th May. We will be treated to workshops covering activities from fabric dying to comic book illustration, yoga classes, comedy from the self-styled ‘Turbohallion’ Paul Currie, a burlesque extravaganza, as well as a multitude of exhibitions.
This year, to better connect the self-isolated, the festival is running an open-call art and poetry competition (with prizes!) centring on this year’s chosen themes of Identity and Isolation respectively.
These themes are integral to the complexity of the human experience. I am presently completing a Masters program at Jordanstown University studying Therapeutic Studies and Communication M(sc); much of what follows centres around my own personal reading and areas of interest.
I would like to briefly discuss the festival’s themes in the context of recent studies in mental health, as well as how the festival helps facilitate people to explore them in the context of their day to day life.
“Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy. Everyone longs for intimacy and dreams of a nest of belonging in which one is embraced, seen, and loved.”
by John O’Donohue
The theme of isolation is especially poignant at this particular moment in history.
People with mental health problems are considered one of the most socially excluded groups within the United Kingdom. Individuals may isolate themselves as a result of self-stigma and feelings of shame attached to their mental illness.
Community-based models are found to improve the individual's societal integration, quality of life, sense of control, sense of meaning and independence.
Naturally, feelings of exclusion and loneliness will only be amplified in these precarious times, while many will face loss of social connection. Festival events, with their emphasis on challenging stigma and inequality, can foster a support network amongst individuals whereby they feel part of the dialogue around mental health.
To borrow O’Donahue’s analogy, engaging with the events and being part of the wider mental health dialogue may go some way to creating a sense of belonging in the individual’s life.
Challenging Stigma, Isolation, and the power of storytelling.
“Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you that there is magic in it, and if you show yourself naked for me, I'll be naked for you. It will be our covenant”
As its deadline is approaching, it is worth revisiting one of the key aims of the World Health Organisation's Mental Health Action plan: to allow individuals with mental health concerns to participate fully in society without fear of stigmatisation.
Studies have found consistent participation in the Arts can play a role in reducing stigma and social exclusion for those suffering emotional distress. The ritual of witnessing artists expressing their personal testimony of mental ill health, challenges stigma and encourages the attendees to mirror this process in their own life; it normalizes sharing their personal stories with others.
One such study investigated the impact of attending arts festivals on attitudes and beliefs regarding mental health. “ ‘People realize their stories are not insular in any way’ (Interviewee 45)” is one example of a general theme that ran through the responses of many of the interviewees of the study.
Witnessing the artists in NIMHAF reveal their stories through their chosen discipline may help people to rid themselves of some of the self-stigma and shame they have attached to their mental health concerns.
As these varying groups communicate with one another, this can allow a reframing of previously held beliefs and ideas, ultimately moving towards public destigmatization. As the writer Dorothy Allison comments, being ‘naked’ or revealing your true story can be a nearly sacred experience.
Identity and Recovery.
‘Everybody is happy now’
Brave New World (1932)
Identity is the other key theme of this year's festival, while facilitating recovery is one of the festival’s overarching objectives. Identity is a broad and often detailed concept, but viewed in the abstract we can see how the arts and art festivals can help people to explore and accept their identity and use this to recover from damaging perceptions they or others may have held about them.
Generally identity is concerned with how people view themselves and how they fit into their broader society. If someone suffering with mental ill health feels their true identity, specifically if their condition is an integral part of it, is stigmatised or must be suppressed to ‘fit in’, it can hinder their self-esteem and, more broadly speaking, their journey to recovery.
The NIMHAF’s focus on challenging stigma, exploring identity in an inclusive fashion and seeing a person's Mental Health experience as something to recognize or highlight through Art, is critical in helping people express their true identity which can often start a path to recovery.
In regard to the above Huxley quote, it is a dystopian notion that everyone should aspire to the same experience when it comes to their mental well being and their identity. This is why festivals such as the NIMHAF, which is inclusive in its thinking and exposes the wider public to a variety of experiences, is so critical.
This is just a brief exploration of some of the key ideas and goals of this year’s festival. I hope it goes some small way to illuminating the vital role the NIMHAF can have in our community.
I would encourage you to get involved in the festival in a way that is comfortable and safe for you. While we may not be able to enjoy it together in physical proximity, there is comfort in knowing people are experiencing something wonderful and meaningful alongside you and that, most importantly of all, you are not alone.
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