Thursday 18 December 2014

Shining a light on dark subject of mental illness

January is a difficult month for many, but the First Fortnight Festival offers some hope, says Keith Gaynor

Keith Gaynor

Published 07/01/2014 | 02:30

'Silver Linings Playbook', starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, is screening as part of First Fortnight. The movie is widely considered to be the movie that best portrays mental illness. Screenings will be followed by a  post-show discussion on how movies shape our understanding of mental health. For more information visit firstfortnight.ie
'Silver Linings Playbook', starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, is screening as part of First Fortnight. The movie is widely considered to be the movie that best portrays mental illness. Screenings will be followed by a post-show discussion on how movies shape our understanding of mental health. For more information visit firstfortnight.ie

January is a dark month. Less fun, less money, less plans. At my work, there is a six-week gap between December's payslip and January's payslip.

In many ways, the winter only seems to begin when Christmas is over.

In fact, researchers have worked out that the worst day of the coming year will be January 13: 'Blue Monday'.

It's called Blue Monday for a reason. More people are depressed then than on any other day of the year. January affects everyone, but for some it is going to be significant. Since we can't change the weather, or the time of the year and we'd love to fly off to somewhere sunnier but probably can't, what can we do?

Well in Dublin, the First Fortnight Festival aims to kick some shape into January. It is a creative festival of plays, talks, gigs, stand-up and art for the first two weeks of the year to get people going out again.

The goal of every First Fortnight Festival is to open up our discussion of mental health.

In the past, maybe especially in Ireland, we didn't talk about these things. The answer to inner turmoil was outer silence. We didn't even have a vocabulary -- "she suffered with her nerves" or "he liked a drop".

We didn't want to think about it. We didn't want to talk about it. The suffering for those people and their families was brushed under the carpet.

There is a very interesting psychological phenomenon called "thought suppression". The more you try not to think about something, the stronger it comes back: thought suppression has a rebound effect.

If I push it down, it doesn't go away, it comes back even stronger. Try this. Try not to think about a pink bear. Push the pink bear out of your mind as much as possible. Now you'll end up thinking about a pink bear at a whole variety of times throughout today. Tonight going to bed, there's a fair chance a pink bear will pop into your mind.

That's fine, it is even a little bit funny, but what if it was something worse?

What happens when a whole society tells you to push down those feelings or those thoughts? Those thoughts about yourself, the world and others; those thoughts that you might not be particularly proud of yourself.

The thoughts don't go away they come back even stronger.

Soon they'll be matched with guilt and shame.

It becomes your fault for having them, your fault for not coping, your fault for not just getting on with it.

Because these emotions make us feel isolated.

Everyone else can manage. And of course, I'm not the only one.

In fact, one in three of us will feel like this in our lifetime. These are not some other type of people or some other family. This is us. We have these thoughts. We have these feelings. And we need a better way of talking about them than suppression.

This is what makes the First Fortnight Festival so important. It's somewhere where people can speak. In fact, the whole purpose is to find and build a vocabulary so that society can talk about mental health.

Not a medical vocabulary, not a clinician's textbook but a natural vocabulary for what is going on for us. It is the opposite of suppression. It is the opening out of thoughts and feelings so that each of us doesn't carry them alone; that these emotions aren't our private prisons. And little by little, each of us as individuals and as a country can open out a little more.

The opposite of suppression is catharsis. We can talk a lot before we can find the right words to allow us to feel better but it is there for each us. And somewhere in this festival will be a moment that will allow each of us a moment of catharsis, a burning off of the weight of the emotion that envelopes us. January can be a dark month but it doesn't have to be and the First Fortnight Festival brings a little light.

Dr Keith Gaynor is Senior Clinical Psychologist with St John of Gods Hospital, Stillorgan, Co Dublin.

First Fortnight runs until January 11. www.firstfortnight.ie

Irish Independent

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