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Derry play tackling suicide and mental health to help young people in US

A Northern Ireland drama that deals with self-harm and suicide could help young people in the United States, where its author, Patricia Byrne, is currently talking to high school students about its themes. She told Jenny Lee about the initiative

Patrick McBrearty and Pat Lynch in a scene from the play Blinkered

A HARD-HITTING play from Northern Ireland that boldly tackles the issues of suicide and mental health is now helping young people and adults in the US.

Blinkered, by Patricia Byrne, artistic director of Sole Purpose Productions, premiered last year and has since had a successful seven-week theatrical tour of Ireland. It tells the story of Ryan, a young man dealing with feelings of isolation, frustration and loneliness, and his overwhelming thoughts of taking his own life.

Through the play, it looks at what Ryan feels and faces: grief on the anniversary of his grandfather's death; trauma passed down through the family; bullying; social media; austerity and the frustration of not being able to get a fulfilling job. In the play audiences see the devastating impact on his family.

Patricia is currently taking part in a four-week tour of Seattle and New York, supported by an Arts Council for Northern Ireland International Development Award, where she will be sharing the play and exploring the universal issues it raises with high school students.

The opportunity arose when the play was seen last year by a group from Roosevelt High School in Seattle on an exchange trip with Oakgrove Integrated College, Derry.

"Youth suicide is a troubling and tragic concern in societies, from Northern Ireland all the way across the world to Seattle. Our group from Seattle were deeply moved by our first experience with the Sole Purpose production of Blinkered. We at Roosevelt High School had been shocked by two suicides in two years and Blinkered gave us permission to bring the issue front and centre," Roosevelt High School teacher Janine Magidman said.

Sole Purpose's remit is to address social and public issues, and in the past 20 years they have created and performed productions on domestic violence, financial abuse of the elderly, human trafficking, LGBT issues and the ethnic minority experience in Northern Ireland.

Having seen high rates of suicide in Derry, Patricia felt the need to address the subject through drama.

"Theatre is a powerful way to get these really complex messages across and show what's going on inside a person who is feeling suicidal. The stage can be a powerful platform because when you watch a piece of theatre it impacts upon your emotions," she says.

Careful to get across the right message, the play was developed with guidance from Conor McCafferty of self-harm and suicide support charity Zest NI; Siobhan O'Neill, professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, Barry McGale of Suicide Prevention UK and Bridie Sheridan who has 25 years' experience working with young people in suicide prevention.

In researching the play, Patricia also interviewed families bereaved by suicide and people who had attempted suicide.

And what is the main message she hopes people take away from Blinkered?

"If you are concerned about someone, don't be afraid to ask them if they are feeling suicidal. Some people believe that if you ask the question you are putting the idea into their heads, but research shows that if you ask someone if they feel suicidal it can be a relief to them and allow them to talk about how they are feeling."

Patricia felt that a play about suicide should be accompanied by an interactive workshop in which people could explore how this issue could be directly addressed. Following the Irish performances audiences were asked to think of something a character in the play could do to help Ryan.

"The cast would act out the suggestion and then someone who works in suicide prevention would make a comment as to whether this scenario would be useful in a real life situation," says Patricia.

In Seattle Patricia will be visiting a number of schools where she will be reading through the play, discussing its themes and then asking groups to dramatically create their own means of intervention to help the character Ryan.

She will also be taking part in a mental health awareness event in the city and talking to venues in Seattle and New York with a view to bringing Blinkered to the stage there next year.


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