Mental Health Arts Festival a cultural shoulder to cry on in our sitting-room theatres

Burlesque performers Ellen and Edie will present a grown-ups' performance on Friday – see Picture by Sara Marsden Photography
Jane Hardy


Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival

THE sheer adaptability of the human race in the coronavirus era is cheering. One example reaching you online right now is the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival. In eight weeks, this charitable organisation under curator Dawn Richardson switched around 40 events from physical venues to PC screens.

As chairwoman Trisha Forbes said: "The arts and mental health are more relevant than ever in time of lockdown."

As Mental Health week unfurls, you can sample some cultural gems. John Patrick Higgins's meditation on grief, All Within, is an intense look at our toughest challenge. Paired with Triona Doyle's sensitive artwork, the text examines the conflict between the Andrew Marvell gather-ye-roses approach to living life now as against a depressed reticence.

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The phrase making is, as you'd expect from the writer and dramatist, magnificent; he comments on the difficulty of maintaining distance from the pain of loss, "You can't live life in f***ing bubble-wrap." Yet grief can floor you via a photo album which, he says, is a "gateway to snot and tears".

There are, of course, poems, read beautifully by Electra, the drag artist in residence. I liked two takes on depression – Emma McKinley's Murmuration and Marian Burke's My Companion the Dog on taming the black dog.

Declaring an interest, I also found my partner Michael Conaghan's Yarn and Crack about an old man's troubles (and Troubles) revealing.

Music is perhaps the best art of all for uplift. This festival showcases quite a lot of it and goes in for singalong sessions, the daily Big Sing for Wellness, like BBC Radio 3 whose Friday morning shout-outs are becoming legendary.

On Monday, the festival showed its melodic class with three numbers Karaoke'd by its followers: Three Little Birds, the Undertones' Teenage Kicks and the reassuring Lean On me.

Artwork by Triona Doyle which accompanies John Patrick Higgins's writing on 'grief in the time of social distancing' as part of the online Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival

For that's what this gig is all about, finding a cultural shoulder to cry on in the new sitting-room theatre. There is yoga for mental health with Denis Jackson Wade and the Irish singer Fears examines her mental health in a specially commissioned work titled Two.

But there is also humour, essential at the moment, and a bit of risque performance too. Ellie and Edie are presenting an out-there burlesque on Friday (not for younger viewers, obviously). You could dress up at home if you wanted to, I guess, as we're becoming private spectators.

The festival runs until May 24 but fortunately, the first virtual Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival will remain available until next year's offering ( So therapeutic art will be on tap as we shift our cultural habits, maybe for good.

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