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7 awe-inspiring individuals who also happened to be affected by mental health issues

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By Fiona Smith

BUZZ ALDRIN
It’s the 45th anniversary of the moon landing – and in his book Return to Earth the astronaut recounts the surreal experience of being among the first to walk its surface. But it also touches on a much darker place. Despite the adulation that came with the whole lunar stroll thing, Buzz entered into a deep depression and alcoholism, leading to a hospital stay. He only found his feet again through therapy and medication.

Buzz later said: “Recovery was not easy. Perhaps the most challenging turnaround was accepting the need for assistance and help. Looking back at it now – with over 22 years of sobriety – this was probably one of my greatest challenges. But it has also been one of the most satisfying because it has given me a sense of comfort and ease with where I am now.”

FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE
Florence became a popular heroine tending wounded soldiers in the Crimean war in the 1850s, and what she learned there informed her groundbreaking nursing techniques. In addition to a cracking bedside manner, the Lady of the Lamp was something of a pie chart pioneer, inventing a new diagram system to depict mortality rates.

She was able to present complex data to the British parliament in a way that made sense to them and sparked vital reform. Florence founded the first official secular nurse training scheme and her students went on to run successful hospitals and schools across the world.

But from 1857 on, Nightingale suffered from debilitating depression, likely brought on by a bacterial infection contracted in the field. Despite being intermittently bedridden, she remained amazingly productive in social reform and hospital planning and her prolific writings have been influential on a global scale ever since.

WINSTON CHURCHILL
Britain’s cigar-chomping wartime Prime Minister, famed for his V for victory two-fingered salute and rousing speeches, was plagued by what he termed the “Black Dog” of depression. With both his father and daughter affected by mental health issues, it appears to have run in the family.

While his stirring oration strengthened Allied resistance and buoyed the wartime population, he often sank to the depths of despair. Friend Lord Beaverbrook described him as “always at the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of intense depression”. But psychiatrist Anthony Storr reckons Churchill used his experiences to inform his political character, saying: “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940”.

There is some speculation Churchill may have lived with bipolar disorder – in addition to serving as Prime Minister for decades, he wrote 43 books as well as a huge volume of correspondence.

NIKOLA TESLA
You’ve probably seen dramatic images of the inventor in his lab with his Weird Science-style contraptions, bolts of ‘lightning’ at his fingertips. But despite cutting a dashing figure, the Serbian-American scientist avoided close human relationships all his life, working in intense solitude in his efforts to create more efficient energy systems.

He had symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a stark aversion to germs. While Tesla’s endless innovations eventually improved the lives of billions, his employers and investors often failed to appreciate his genius and left him penniless and no longer in control of many of his patents. Tesla happily went to work digging ditches in his downtime from the technological industry. In later years, overcoming his germ phobia, he cared for wild birds in his New York apartment and could be seen standing in the park with pigeons perched on his outstretched arms.

DOROTHY PARKER
While I’d personally take issue with her most famous one-liner ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’, the legendary wit was the breakout star of the Algonquin Vicious Circle, a coterie of wordsmiths and wisecrackers who met at the New York hotel in the Twenties. A reviewer for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, she also had a well-paid residency as a Hollywood screenwriter, penning the Oscar-nominated A Star Is Born.

Along with her dazzling bon mots and a reputation as a social sharpshooter, she was also open about her hard drinking and depression. It was often the subject of her poetry – her most celebrated work is a list of the downsides of various unsatisfactory suicidal methods, resolving in ‘You might as well live’. And she sure did. Parker was a passionate advocate for civil rights, a fearless reporter on the Spanish Civil War, chairing the Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee and co-founding the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
The most famous composer of all time suffered the cruellest blow imaginable, when his hearing began to deteriorate age 28 and he became totally deaf by age 44. It is believed he had Paget’s disease, which caused the cranial bones to enlarge and destroy auditory nerves, also resulting in an ever-expanding forehead, jaw and feet. However

Beethoven continued to compose symphonies and concertos, which he would never fully hear, sometimes resorting to conducting them with a crude ‘hearing trumpet’ taped to his head. He descended into alcoholism and opium-use however and may have also had bipolar disorder, being prone to bouts of mania – he was said to have composed several works at once, including several of his most magnificent pieces.

NINA SIMONE
The legendary jazz singer suffered with mental health issues throughout her life. Simone’s childhood obsession to succeed as a classical pianist was the seed of discontent that drove her to later unhappiness, according to biographer Nadine Cohodas. A rejection of her application to study music at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, which she believed was down to racial discrimination, was devastating for her.

Moving on to nightclub performing, her shows tended to be volatile. Nina would berate or stare down the crowd if there was too much noise, stating: “I expect and deserve respect.” Later financial disputes with record companies and the taxman fostered her sense of paranoia. While her career flourished, her illness grew steadily worse. Finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, she continued to perform regularly due to mounting debts. Despite late starts and shouting matches with the crowd, her concerts usually ended in a standing ovation due to her phenomenal talent.

Follow Fiona Smith on Twitter @fifilebon

It’s A Table Quiz!

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It's A Table Quiz!Those of you who attended the Best Table Quiz of All Time last year will be happy to know that besides working away on programming First Fortnight 2015, we’re also in the midst of working on some fundraising projects. It’s A Table Quiz being one of them.

On August 14th get yourself and three of your smartest mates down to dTwo on Harcourt Street where comedian and Republic of Telly host Kevin McGahern will be dishing out the questions and maybe even a joke or two. There will be some awesome prizes up for grabs as well as a raffle. So start brushing up your knowledge on everything from pop culture, sports, music, film, theatre and anything else we might throw at you. (more…)

A message from Lewis Kenny

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We work hard to make First Fortnight happen. We work long hours in our so-called real jobs and then work longer in our so-called free time to keep this thing afloat and keep our message out there. It’s hard at times. In fact it’s hard a lot of the time. And I have no problem admitting that quite often I wonder why I still do it and how much longer I can keep doing it. And it’s a funny thing. It seems that every time I feel like that something happens that makes be stop and say “That’s why we do this! That’s why this matters. And that’s why I’m going to keep doing it.” Well, that happened again recently… (more…)

First Fortnight is looking for media and PR volunteers

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First Fortnight is looking for volunteers to assist with its media and PR campaign ahead of the 2015 Festival this January.

You may be someone working in journalism or PR or you may be a blogger, journalist, videographer or PR student with an interest in mental health and looking to gain some experience at working on a festival or health-focused media campaign.

The roles will involve assisting the Press, Public Relations and Media manager. You will work under his guidance to help plan the festival’s PR campaign; contribute articles and ideas for our blog; help push our message on social media; and contact journalists and other media professionals to help gain coverage for the festival.

Hopefully you will be interested in mental health and the arts and willing to give over a few hours each month to help First Fortnight’s goal of challenging mental health stigma.

First Fortnight is a volunteer-run charity, but you’ll get great experience of working on a national festival with a passionate and committed team. It’s great fun, we promise!

If it sounds like something you’re interested in, please drop Steve Cummins a line – steve@firstfortnight.ie or on Twitter @Steve_Cummins

There Is A Light: Christof on Ireland, mental health and his influences

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Hailing from the Lowlands of Holland, singer songwriter Christof composes contemporary folk music from  the heart.

Inspired in early childhood by the classical singing of his mother and the guitar-pickings of his father, Christof has spent the last number of years perfecting his trade (and his collection of stories) as a travelling troubadour across Europe and further afield. He draws his inspiration from the people he meets and the places he lives – from the damp cobbled streets of Galway on Ireland’s Atlantic coast to the bustle and life of London Town.

2012 saw Christof relocate to London and commence work on his forthcoming third EP – ‘Love’s Glory’ which is OUT NOW on Bluestack Records in late 2013. The adventure of the tousled haired lad continues… 

What are you up to right now?

At the moment I am sitting in a van driving near the Lake District on the way to Inverness with Bears den. And we are playing Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, tomorrow.

Who are your heroes?
My mum and dad!

What’s been the best decade of your life so far and why?
The last decade has been very interesting. Moved from home to live in Ireland. Started busking, played some pubs and now touring the world!

What record gets you up when you’re feeling down?
Fionn Regan – The End of History or Jolie Holland’s Catalpa. Doesn’t really get me up but I deal with things better.

Ireland should get talking about mental health because….
I worked in mental health with people with social and learning disability. I’ve also worked on a unit in a nursing home with elderly people with severe dementia. I think it’s very important we should start talking about it because it’s all around us and happening in our families. And we all need to deal with it at some stage in our lives. Whether our own or someone else’s. We should not ignore or walk away from it. As I’ve learned that those people need family and friends the most..

What makes you angry?
People talking out loud during a show/gig..

What book influenced you most?
I don’t really read that many books but I thought Bob Dylan’s Chronicles vol 1 was pretty important to me.

What was the worst moment of your life?
Haven’t had it yet… (Knock wood)

If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
I wish I knew how to record an album. And I will change that this summer.

Can you recommend an interesting website?
www.wikipedia.com. This is full of interesting facts and things. Anything you like..

What is the best lesson life has taught you?
Keep on trucking!!

Why did you want to be part of There is A Light ?
I’d like there be shown light on mental health in Ireland for I’ve been involved in both a professional and personal situations and it can always be improved.

What is your favourite film and why?
God there are so many. Just watching films in the touring van. Goodfellas is coming next. Heard its a good one.

What do you believe in?
Never giving up in your beliefs.

What is your ultimate guilty pleasure?
A big creamy caramel frappucino from a well established coffee shop..

There Is A Light will be launched with a special concert featuring performances from artists on the album in Whelan’s Dublin on May29th. See whelanslive.com for more.

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