NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival

Director Kirsten Kearney on how a little idea blossomed into a big festival, which runs from October 10 – 13

A brand new arts festival arrives in Northern Ireland this month, bringing an important message as well as a varied programme of culture and entertainment.

The first ever NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival (NIMHAFF) begins on World Mental Health Day, Thursday, October 10, inviting audiences to explore and engage with mental health issues. Its core aim is to 'celebrate mental health'. 

As well as challenging the stigmas that so often surround mental health, organisers want to encourage everyone to view their own mental health as something to nurture. The overall aim is to promote the arts as a way of raising awareness and understanding, and to assist healing and recovery.

Taking place in various locations throughout the country, the festival offers film screenings, music concerts, art and photography exhibitions, craft, poetry and health and wellbeing sessions. While the programme is varied, each event is focused on the idea of mental health. 

The content ranges from challenging and thought-provoking, to light-hearted and celebratory. Second Chance for Change presents a screening of films by forensic mental health patients. Inside Out/What You Don't See is a photographic exhibition exploring mental health in the criminal justice system.

The Sound of Recovery brings an hour of song, music and readings from a group of people sharing their journeys of addiction recovery. The Health4Happiness Roadshow, meanwhile, invites people to come and enjoy yoga, food, stress busting and exercise.

That is just a small selection of what's happening over four days of the festival, and all events are free to attend.

Before now, Northern Ireland was the only region of the UK without a festival focused specifically on mental health. Inspired by the success of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF), a small group formed in Belfast last year, spearheaded by the Educational Shakespeare Company, and in April of this year it put the idea ‘out there’ to see what the response would be.

ESC chief executive Kirsten Kearney is at the helm as the NIMHAFF festival director. She explains how quickly momentum has built. 'Originally the plan was to have the October festival as a mini festival, working towards a bigger festival in May 2014. As we currently have no funding and are run purely by volunteers, this seemed a sensible way to start. 

'However, having pulled together such a diverse steering group, there are suddenly around 20 events, so it feels more like a proper festival. We are aiming for May 2014 for a larger festival, though.'

Kearney says organisers have deliberately included a mixture of work by people with first-hand, lived experience of mental health problems and those with no direct experience who have chosen to focus their work around those issues. 

'I think this is the best combination,' she explains. 'It allows individuals to showcase work that they have done in a therapeutic setting, but also allows for high-quality work about the issues themselves.'

One group which represents a combination of the two is Voice of Recovery, whose event The Sound Of Recovery takes place in the Linen Hall Library on Thursday, October 10. Led by Sheila Smyth, the group is mostly comprised of individuals recovering from addictions following residential rehabilitation in Newry's Cuan Mhuire centre.

Smyth worked with group members in the centre through her Singing for Health therapeutic workshops. Around 20 members will present their story to audiences in an hour-long show of music and poetry.

'There will be songs about the world and the circumstances that led them to addiction, addiction itself, recovery and moving on to their future. Poems will be the "bridges" that link these four sections,' adds Smyth. It's a show she feels will be inspiring to those who have experience of addiction and others.

Smyth is fiercely proud of Voice of Recovery and believes that the first NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival provides the ideal stage on which to showcase the group's individual and collective talents.

'Not one person in this group had any experience of singing or music whatsoever before they took part in the workshops,' she says. 'None of them even thought they could sing.

'I believe that locked inside everyone is a song of victory, and it's about finding that song. These people have found their song. There's a wound behind every story and we're allowing music to help heal those wounds.'

NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival runs from October 10 – 13. All events are free. View the full festival programme.

NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival