Putting mental health centre stage

The founders of an arts festival believe such events have the capacity to change people’s attitudes towards mental health problems

Tara Lee performing at First Fortnight 2013.

Tara Lee performing at First Fortnight 2013.

Thu, Jan 2, 2014, 11:00

As someone who feels awkward in social situations and is prone to depression, 19-year-old singer/
songwriter Tara Lee (her stage name) felt liberated at last year’s First Fortnight, an arts festival that challenges mental health prejudice through the creative arts.

Tara Lee will perform again at this year’s First Fortnight (January 2nd-11th) which takes place in Dublin’s Temple Bar area with events also taking place in Cork, Cavan, Wicklow, Laois, Limerick, Waterford and Kildare.

For Tara Lee, who plays The Workman’s Club in Dublin on January 10th, the festival, now in its fifth year, is a place where she can perform for like-minded people. “I pour my heart and soul into my songs. I find it really awkward talking to people about how I feel. Sometimes, bad things happen and I go home and write a sad song.

“At my first gig at last year’s First Fortnight, I was nervous because it felt like I was reading my diary to the crowd. But it turned out to be my favourite gig to date.

“It was amazing to have the full crowd actually listening. I think music helps people suffering with depression. I know when I had my problems, music made it feel like it was okay to be the way I was.”

While Tara Lee never had to take medication for depression, she attended a counsellor and her parents gave her permission to leave school for six months during which time she concentrated on her music. She later returned to education and completed her Leaving Certificate.

Bullied at a number of schools for being different, Tara Lee says it’s possible for children to become depressed.

“I had a hard time. I was a little bit of a freak. It’s trendy now to be quirky. I was into different stuff at school.

“When my classmates wanted to play sports, I wanted to play the piano in the music room. Things got really bad in secondary school.

“There’s criteria you have to meet if you’re to get through school. You’ve got to be constantly happy, bubbly and flirty. It has always been like that. Girls who are quiet, geeky and work hard are pushed to the side as if there’s something wrong with them.”

In a good place
With her debut EP, Soundtracks, being released on iTunes on January 30th, Tara Lee says she is now “in a good place”. She doesn’t believe she suffered from clinical depression.

“I think I was depressed because of the situation I was in. As soon as I got out of that, I started to feel better.

“While what happened will affect me for the rest of my life, I don’t think the depression is going to come back. Unless I put myself in a situation with negative people, I feel I’m going to be okay.”

Tara Lee says she comes across “as really bipolar in my songs. Some of them are really upbeat and can be bitchy if I’m pissed off with someone. Others are really naive and vulnerable.

“My mind is all over the place. I’ve started to do Pilates and yoga and I think that helps me because I can get really panicky and have suffered from panic attacks.”

Co-founder of First Fortnight, JP Swaine, says the festival is unique, not just in Ireland, but internationally. “We expect to have 7,000 people interacting at First Fortnight.”

He and co-founder, David Keegan, thought it would be a good idea to brighten up January with an arts festival.

“People are very aware of their own mental health and that of others at this time of the year. There’s a lot of darkness and loss of energy for all of us in the first two weeks of the New Year. It can be a difficult time. What better time to bring something bright and exciting and interesting, like an arts festival, to people?”

Interest in mental health
Swaine, who is a social work manager dealing with the mental health issues of homeless people in Dublin, became interested in mental health as a result of losing his brother to suicide.

“I was 16 at the time and became drawn to mental healthcare as a profession. I’m interested in how mental health issues affect society and families. I have a vocational attachment to the area.”

Swaine and Keegan (who is an arts professional) believe arts events “have the capacity to change people’s attitudes towards mental health problems”.

“Our primary focus is to reduce the levels of stigma and prejudice associated with mental health issues.

“By creating spaces and events that people can interact with in a safe place, conversations can start off in really interesting ways. The arts events are jumping-off points for conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

Event participants
First Fortnight events and participants include the English artist, Stuart Semple, who will bring his world renowned ‘Happy Clouds’ to Ireland for the first time.

A discussion on mental health services will be chaired by broadcaster Marian Finucane. Irish music acts, Vann Music, Come On Live Long, Mark Geary and Laura Elizabeth Hughes will perform. There will be a nationwide screening of the Oscar-winning film, Silver Linings Playbook, followed by post-show Q&A sessions.

For full programme details, visit firstfortnight.ie.

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