Joy in the Park: Helping to bring mental health issues out into the open

The inaugural event in Cork will encourage people to get outside and engage with service providers

“It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter,” sang George Harrison, and while Here Comes the Sun may not be on the setlist for the inaugural Joy in the Park event, the sentiment is very much to the fore, encouraging anyone facing mental health challenges to get out and engage with service providers.

The driving force behind the event, which kicks off at Fitzgerald’s Park in Cork at noon on Sunday (July 17th), is Linda Plover, who explains that the motivation for the event came from a family tragedy: the loss of family member Joy Sylvie in 2021 at the age of just 33.

“In June last year, my family lost somebody very special and dear to us,” says Plover. “Her name was Joy, and she really was everything her name represents — anyone who met her fell in love with her warmth, kindness, and sense of fun. She loved music and the arts, writing poetry and short stories.

“I decided to organise an event that would capture Joy’s sense of fun and love of music and the arts and at the same time bringing the community together and raising awareness for mental health This event is about celebrating life and looking out for each other.

READ MORE

“Joy in the Park is not a memorial to Joy — it’s rather her legacy. It’s about the idea that we can all find our own joy together and a lot of what has been programmed reflects a lot of Joy’s personality because she had very eclectic tastes musically, and my intention was to capture that.”

Among the acts lined up to perform at the festival are indie legend Jerry Fish, innovative world music band Kila and Cork ska favourites Pontious Pilate & The Naildrivers, while the Cork Circus Factory and the Cork Puppetry Company are sure to go down a treat with children.

“We will also have an acoustic stage with an amazing line-up of artists, headlined by John Spillane, while we will also have the Joy Sylvie Spoken Word Stage with some incredible poets, writers and hip-hop and spoken word artists including Cork’s own acclaimed writer Cónal Creedon.”

Plover explains that, along with the entertainment, Joy in the Park will balance a sense of fun and celebration with connection and understanding and raising awareness about mental health through several service providers in the area of mental healthiness and wellbeing.

Among the groups who will have stands at the festival are the HSE’s Health Action Zone teams from Cork Kerry Community Healthcare, and groups such as Shine My Mind, Grow, Cork Counselling Services and Jigsaw, as well as Pieta, The Samaritans, Shine a Light and Aware.

Joy in the Park is being supported by the HSE through its Connecting for Life programme as part of the HSE suicide prevention mental health strategy; Martin Ryan from Cork Kerry Community Healthcare says the HSE is happy to be involved in the initiative.

“We are delighted to be taking part — it’s bright and joyous and it’s great to see all the organisations coming together. Often we tend to work on our own bits and pieces, but here we can catch up with what we’re all doing and how we’re connecting with other people.”

Also assisting with financial support for the festival is the Cork City Council Arts Office, Cork County Council’s Local Community Development Committee, Cork City Council’s Sports, Recreation and Parks service and the IMRO Sponsorship programme.

The festival is being held in partnership with Cork Mental Health Foundation and its CEO, Brendan McCarthy, explains that the Covid pandemic proved a real challenge for people with mental health issues and the various service providers who assist them.

“Covid impacted hugely on people from a social perspective in terms of people not being able to get out to meet people and just to be able to talk and chat. We are a very sociable people and not to have that outlet has had a big effect,” he says.

“The very severe lockdown we had in 2020 had positive effects in that it got us to focus and look out for our neighbours, but there was also a negative impact in that people just couldn’t get out and socialise and do the normal things, so that isolation did have a negative impact on a lot of people.”

McCarthy says his organisation, which provides housing for more than 100 people and works with another 200 through the Next Step programme, was affected by the lockdown in that people lost a couple of years on their journey towards engaging with others and getting back into the community.

“We are trying to get people to get back out and engage, and Joy in the Park has a part to play in that, in encouraging people to come out and see what services are available. And if people do need help, lots and lots of services will be there on the day to showcase what they do.”

The inspiration for Joy in the Park comes in many ways from the late John McCarthy, who founded Mad Pride in the mid-2000s to try to dispel commonly held misconceptions about mental illness. He organised a series of Pride in the Park festivals in Fitzgerald Park in 2008 and 2009.

McCarthy described the Pride in the Park events as “a celebration of the normality of madness”, and the organisers of Joy in the Park similarly see the event as playing a part in de-stigmatising mental health issues so that they can become part of the mainstream conversation.

Brendan McCarthy explains: “I do think we are moving as a society towards the de-stigmatisation of mental health issues. Certainly, speaking to young people, they talk a lot about it and would know friends who are dealing with mental health issues, so we are moving in the right direction.

“Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around more severe mental health issues and that is something that we will all have to work on as well, and I would say something like the Joy in the Park does give people the opportunity to meet the people involved in the services face-to-face.

“So, they will be able to speak to them, which they have not been able to do for the last two years, and they will be able to do it outside of the office environment or the counselling centre. The whole idea is to break down the barriers of anxiety of going through the door and meeting the services.

“People can just have a chat with the service providers, and they are all doing lots of activities, they are not specifically based around just mental health. It can be about mindfulness or art or something like that — it doesn’t have to be ‘oh, I need help and I need to talk to you now’.”

Traditionally, discussing mental health issues has been a challenge for young men, says McCarthy, but seeing role models such as Bressie openly discussing their mental health difficulties has helped. But it’s important the move continues towards people feeling more comfortable discussing their mental wellbeing.

“Addressing mental health issues has probably posed a greater challenge for young men — we, as men, are still much more vulnerable to that because we don’t want to talk about it and we have been brought up with the idea of us needing to be strong and not needing help” he says.

“But the pressures are felt everywhere — it’s growing on young women as well with social media and everything that goes with that. That’s why it’s important that we continue pushing so that it becomes a mainstream talk, and Joy in the Park will hopefully help in that regard.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times