74 Nick Kelly Songwriter and awardwinning Film Director
Just before we filmed The Drummer And The Keeper, I was asked to sit on a panel at an event in St Patrick’s Hospital at which portrayals of mental health in cinema were examined and debated. The audience was a mix of service users, family members and clinicians. Tellingly, we were all asked to refrain from taking photos for the duration.
During the closing discussions, somebody in the audience asked whether I thought my own film – the story of an unlikely friendship between a rock musician with a bipolar diagnosis and a young man with Aspergers Syndome – would change negative public attitudes towards mental illness.
I replied that I honestly thought the main thing that would change attitudes towards mental illness would be for more high profile people to “come out” about their own diagnoses.
A young woman then stood up and said that, while she appreciated the theory of what I was saying, there were more people sitting on our panel (there were four of us) than there were west of the Shannon, where she came from, who were aware of her diagnosis – and that if people in her own community were to learn of her condition she would face disastrous consequences in her family, in her relationships and in her work. Her mental illness was something that had to be kept secret at all costs.
I found her response completely understandable, tragic, and crystallising of the distance we as a society need to travel in our thinking and feeling. One in four Irish people will have treatment for a mental health problem during their lifetime. So whether it’s our own illness, or that of a partner, relation, friend or colleague, sooner or later each of us will have to deal with this issue first-hand. I don’t have any medical training, but it seems to me axiomatic that however challenging the clinical effects of one’s condition may be, those effects can only be compounded if you also have to pretend that nothing is going on, and can’t reach out for support from the people around you.
This hiding away also allows terrible – and terribly familiar – stereotyping to persist: in film, for example, one often sees characters with mental health conditions derided and demonised in a way that once was acceptable – but certainly would not now be – in portrayals of black, female or gay people.
I know that it takes massive courage for any individual to publicly admit to a mental health problem – and I would completely respect and defend their right to not take that step until and unless they are ready to.
But the more people who do manage to take that brave step – and the more that those around them applaud and support them in so doing – the harder it is for our society to ignore this most common human reality, and the more educated, enlightened and empathetic we all individually become.
One in four Irish people will have treatment for a mental health problem during their lifetime.