Arts festival to focus on social media and young people

Festival’s aim is to create discussion and a better understanding of young people’s mental health issues

“I have an interest in working with young people and how they see the world,” says playwright Stefanie Preissner, who suffers from depression.  Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

“I have an interest in working with young people and how they see the world,” says playwright Stefanie Preissner, who suffers from depression. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


The use of social media by young people will be under the spotlight at First Fortnight, the mental health arts festival that continues until January 17th in Dublin and selected venues nationwide.

The festival, now in its sixth year, aims to create discussion and understanding of mental health problems as well as challenging prejudice and discrimination through music, film, theatre and visual arts events. It is partnered by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services and See Change, the national mental health stigma-reduction partnership.

Twenty-six year old award-winning playwright Stefanie Preissner’s new play-in-development, User Not Found, will be presented at the Axis in Ballymun on January 13th as part of the festival. The play has four characters as well as the missing Rachel who has a presence only on social media. It was inspired by Preissner’s work with Light Bulb, a youth theatre company in Cork, and Dublin Youth Theatre.

“I have an interest in working with young people and how they see the world,” says Preissner, who suffers from depression.

“As a young person, I didn’t have the support systems in place to process what was going on. What struck me about working with people younger than me is their absolute dependence on social media. They have grown up in a context where they don’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Versions of themselves online and in real life can be in such huge contrast. It’s hard to pair the two.”


Sick of Facebook

Preissner, whose autobiographical play, Solpadeine is My Boyfriend, premiered at First Fortnight in 2013, deleted her Facebook page in February 2014.


“I was absolutely sick of it. I thought it was toxic. I kept comparing my life to the lives of other people online. My real self was so different to my online self that it was no longer reasonable to have that page. I used to post pictures of myself in make-up, constantly at parties and theatre openings. I perpetuated this image which I felt I had to continue. But it wasn’t the real me. It was me being upbeat and having a great time all the time and nothing about having political views and intelligent things to say.”

If, says Preissner, a certain image of yourself is online and you’re privately struggling, “it’s really not the friendliest or most supportive place. It’s difficult to know how to ask for help.

“If you say you’re really sad and you’re having the worst day ever, it seems like you’re looking for attention.

“People don’t seem to appreciate that it’s a cry for help. You might have 800 “friends” on Facebook but where do you turn to when you need help? People can be clicking “like” when they really should be calling an ambulance.”

Preissner feels that cyber bullying is treated as an anomaly. “But actually, the bullying that happened in school is now happening online because that’s how children engage with each other. It’s more difficult to monitor it and it’s slightly more insidious. We need to treat the problem rather than the symptom. The symptom is just the internet. It’s not the problem. With social media, you need to set a level for yourself.”

User Not Found is “not a mystery play. A third of the way in, audiences will know that Rachel is dead. The play is about reconciling the other characters’ guilt and what they should have done.”

Workshops with young people Preissner, a graduate of drama and theatre studies from UCC, devised and wrote the play, based on workshops with young people.

“What came up for me was the fact that as consumers of social media, young people are intelligent and have their own shorthand.” But she agrees that overdosing on social media can have a desensitising effect.

“Young people don’t have the social skills to actually have a real conversation because all their conversation happens online. Learning how to ask for help in a rational and reasonable way is alien to them.”


Life has changed for the better

Since deleting her Facebook account, Preissner says her life has changed for the better. “I have real contact with people now although at first, people think you’re dead when you get rid of Facebook. Facebook is a passive way of checking in with people. You’re not really in touch with your friends.”


Preissner hopes her play will open up a discussion and she feels that the platform of a mental health arts festival will reach a broader audience than just a theatre-going one.

She is an ambassador for See Change. “Mary McEvoy and some comedians, artists and writers, are also ambassadors for it. I suppose there’s a preconceived idea, rightly or wrongly, that mental health issues affect a lot of artists.”

User Not Found received funding from Arts and Disability Ireland. “I actually had to ask them if depression constituted a disability for my application. That sparked an interesting debate. It’s kind of interesting that I had to ask that. It was great to have Axis as a place to go and do my work.

“I felt supported when I had anxiety around things like meetings with people I hadn’t accessed before.” A case of real life interaction being more nuanced, but ultimately, more satisfying than cyberspace.

*This article was amended to correct a date