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Festival aims to lift stigma of depression

WHAT began as a novel idea to celebrate a 30th birthday two years ago has grown into the most important arts and music festival tackling mental-health stigma in Ireland.

First Fortnight began life in 2010 as a one-night fund raising event for charities that work in the area of mental health, but such has been its success that this year it is a 10-day festival, with music gigs, art and video exhibitions, seminars and talks.

Now a registered charity in its own right, First Fortnight is so named because the first two weeks of the year are a particularly difficult period for those suffering from depression or contemplating suicide.

JP Swaine, founder of First Fortnight, said the main purpose of the festival was to help overcome the stigma for those most in need. Mr Swaine, 31, a Dublin-based social worker, tragically lost his brother to suicide when he was 16 years old.

"In Ireland, Christmas can be a very unsettling period for many. We drop our normal routines and tend to drink too much. So once it all stops, many people tend to feel very low in the first few weeks of the new year.

"We are trying to make it more acceptable and easier for people who are feeling low," he said.

Mr Swaine added that the stigma around depression and suicide was a major barrier that stopped people asking those around them for help.

"Many find it difficult to reach out and ask for help. They fear getting a negative response to that request, so that itself drives the stigma. Through this, we are hoping to make it easier for people to seek help when they need it."

The festival is being staged in association with See Change, a government-backed initiative that seeks to challenge discrimination on mental-health issues.

RTE broadcaster Claire Byrne is an ambassador for See Change and was at the press launch for First Fortnight last Wednesday.

Since the beginning of Ireland's economic crisis, the instances of suicide and of attempted suicide have increased significantly. Some 486 deaths by suicide occurred in Ireland during 2010, of which 386 were male and 100 female. In 2009, 527 people took their own lives.

Just under one-in-four people in Ireland have some direct personal experience of mental illness or a suicide.

Mr Swaine and his team of volunteers have attracted some of Ireland's biggest musicians, artists and writers to take part in the festival. Next Saturday night, First Fortnight will culminate with a finale at the Button Factory in Dublin's Temple Bar. The live event will feature music from Royseven, Cashier No 9 and Le Galaxie.

A showing of the acclaimed documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston took place at the Irish Film Institute last night. Mr Johnson, a musician and artist who has had an ongoing struggle with manic depression, supported the event by making one of his artworks available for use as a limited-edition, once-off festival T-shirt.

Sunday Independent