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Derry Girl Jamie-Lee O'Donnell delighted to be doing Darkness Into Light walk

As supporters around Ireland and the world prepare for Saturday May 12's Darkness into Light suicide awareness walks, Derry Girls actress Jamie-Lee O'Donnell tells Gail Bell why she is stepping out in Derry and why we all need to open up the conversation around mental health

Derry Girls actress Jamie-Lee O'Donnell at the launch of this year's Darkness Into Light

DERRY Girl Jamie-Lee O'Donnell may enjoy a lie-in as much as the rest of us, but the actress is making a special effort to get out of bed in the wee small hours on Saturday May 12 in support of the ninth Darkness Into Light campaign run by Dublin-based suicide and self-harm support organisation Pieta House.

What exactly mouthy Michelle – O'Donnell's teenage alter-ego in the hit Channel 4 sitcom, Derry Girls – would make of being pulled out from under her duvet for the 4.15am walk is anyone's guess, but we can imagine a colourful riposte or two in protest.

However, the actress herself has never been more serious and is passionate about supporting the initiative, which this year is offering a choice of nine different walks across Northern Ireland, all in support of Pieta House's lifesaving work in the field of suicide prevention, bereavement and self-harm.

She will be joining the 5K Derry walk on Saturday May 12 in support of the Electric Ireland-supported initiative which launched recently in Belfast – and the timing could hardly have been more poignant.

Updated figures published by the Mental Health Foundation and the Royal College of Psychiatrists in February revealed that more than 4,400 suicides were registered in Northern Ireland in the years between 1998 and 2016 – by way of comparison, it is estimated that 3,600 people died violently during the Troubles (from 1969-1997).

Experts have also pointed to a worrying 25 per cent higher rate of mental illness in the north, compared to that in England.

Since its relatively small scale-launch in Dublin in 2009 – when 400 people walked in Phoenix Park – Darkness Into Light has sought to symbolically highlight the growing problem across Ireland and has, according to Pieta House CEO Brian Higgins, become a sort of "global movement".

"Darkness Into Light has become much more than a fundraiser; it touches the hearts and minds of people throughout Ireland and around the world," he said. "Last year, 180,000 people took part in walks across Ireland and this year there will be more than 180 events both in Ireland and across the world."

His views were echoed by O'Donnell who says she finds it "shocking" that there is still a level of ignorance and stigma surrounding mental ill-health in Northern Ireland.

"I lost someone close to me some years ago and it definitely impacted my mental health," says the 26 year-old who studied performing arts at North West College in Derry and later at De Montford University in Leicester.

"I also know a lot of people, many from Derry, who have suffered from depression and mental health problems, so the Darkness Into Light walk was something I definitely wanted to support when the opportunity came up.

"With all the different pressures people face today, from all different sources, this is becoming more of a problem and Derry in particular has a disproportionately high rate of suicides.

"Nearly everyone in this city knows someone who has been affected by mental health issues in some way, so anything I can do to help raise awareness and to bring in funds to help those who most need it, I am more than happy to do it."

She is not sure how the topic could be appropriately tackled in Derry Girls, given the premise of the series and the era it is set in, but feels mental health is something that should be explored more often on stage and on television – and she would love to get her teeth into such a potent role at some point in the future.

"When I was at school, the topic of mental health just wasn't discussed," she says. "It was something that people obviously struggled with, but there was no encouragement to be open about it. I think the subject should definitely be on the school agenda because once people start talking about it, people know they're not alone and that's a really good start.

"When I was suffering after what was a shock bereavement, I went to the doctor and was pointed to some good information literature and services – I remember the Listening Ear counselling service really helped at the time.

"Just by talking to someone and having a conversation helps you not become overwhelmed by your feelings."

Jamie-Lee, who was joined by GAA legend Oisin McConville and Q Radio's Stephen Clements and Cate Conway for the campaign launch, will be donning her trainers and walking with friends, maybe taking along a "couple of coffees" to help stay awake.

With regard to the new series of Derry Girls, she says she hasn't seen the script, so has no idea what Michelle will get up to with hilarious friends Erin (Saoirse Jackson), Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Orla (Louisa Harland).

"Whatever trouble they land themselves in, I'm sure there will be loads of laughs," she says. "We were all so happy with the reaction to the first series and can't wait to get filming again."

In the first series, O'Donnell proved the break-out star, delivering a subtle, understated performance in writer Lisa McGee's darkly comic coming-of-age tale set in 1990s Derry.

When the series first aired, she described the immense pride she felt that the story was set in her home city, as she could identify with the landmarks, mannerisms and distinctive Derry dialect – deliciously hyped with a glossary of Derry words and phrases included on the Channel 4 website.

"For me, the story being set in Derry was brilliant because I could identify with everything and I knew girls like Michelle in school who were real wee rebels and a total terror, really," she said in an interview with The Irish News at the time.

"I was a bit similar to Michelle when I was growing up, but I definitely didn't have her confidence and I was a lot more cautious and aware of consequences. I didn't throw caution to the wind like she does, but I suppose, when I was younger, I liked to pretend that I was a bit like that."

The group of teenagers depicted in Derry Girls are precisely the vulnerable age group O'Donnell says need to be mental-health aware – as do teachers and parents.

"Sharing experiences is the most important thing people can do and making sure younger generations grow up talking about mental health without feeling any sort of shame is why everyone should support Darkness Into Light," she adds.

"This is such an important campaign, so I’m delighted to be walking the walk and helping bring home the important message for mental health. We can all help contribute to this global movement and spread a message of hope and acceptance.”

:: Darkness Into Light walks will take place on Saturday May 12, in Ormeau Park, Belfast; Hannahstown, Derry city, Cookstown, Belleek, Lisnaskea, Newtownabbey, Rostrevor and Strabane. For updates, follow Pieta House on Twitter: twitter.com/PietaHouse and Electric Ireland at twitter.com/ElecIrelandNI

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