Mental Health Arts festival aims to promote dialogue and openness about mental health struggles

The Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts festival has been taking place across the province, aimed at promoting dialogue around mental health issues. 

Exhibitions, displays, talks and performances have all formed part of the festival, with contributors and organisers hoping it will encourage the public to open up about mental health. 

Many of the artists involved have had their own struggles with mental health issues.

Noelle McAlinden, who sits on the Board of NIMHAF, said “All of us involved in the festival have had some lived experience. 

‘The arts certainly provide us access to opportunities where we can build our resilience, develop our own self esteem, our confidence, belief in ourselves and actually support communities coming together and thriving.” 

Many local artists have created pieces for the festival, and for them art provides not only a medium to spark conversation but also a coping mechanism to help deal with their own mental health struggles. 

“As a queer person I know about visibility, just knowing someone has shared experience with you makes it much easier to achieve a sense of self acceptance.” said EG Dunne, one of the festival’s artists in residence. 

Mervyn Marshall, another contributing artist, said “I photograph the Mournes a lot, any time I feel myself being overwhelmed by life and struggling, I think that’s something that I feel inside myself that I need to get out there with a camera.” 

At Catalyst Arts, an artist-led space in the city centre, a “conversation cafe” has popped up. 

Artists and members of the public alike are encouraged to come in for a coffee, a chat and some craic. 

Silvia Koistinen, one of the co-directors of Catalyst Arts, said “We run a series of events that have been about bringing people together, having conversations but also having a bit of fun.” 

“It’s just about coming and having a sense of community and actually speaking to people because I feel like sometimes there can be a bit of disconnection with people and sometimes they don’t have spaces like this to come and talk.” added Dominic McKeown, also a co-director of Catalyst Arts. 

Across the city, The Enthusiasts Choir is performing. 

Among its singers are members of Brain Injury Matters NI, many of whom have dealt with mental health struggles as a result of brain injuries. 

For Roger Kane, the choir is a release from mental health problems. 

“It’s good to be out of the house, it’s a reason to be out of the house instead of sitting staring at four walls the whole time.

‘It’s good to be out and about and participate in something that’s fun.” 

This year Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week, which has seen new research published in relation to Northern Ireland’s mental health. 

The research, carried out on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation, reveals anxiety is gripping Northern Ireland as many people suffer in silence and struggle to cope, with six in ten adults here experiencing anxiety that interferes with their daily lives. 

Karen Hall, Head of Northern Ireland for the Mental Health Foundation, said “ While the focus is on this week we really encourage people to keep thinking about it.

‘We really need to think about what our government can do as well so it’s not just about individual solutions, we need to look at some of those causes and see what can be done.”

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