'As a teenager I was struggling with depression which left me feeling suicidal - but sewing saved my life'
After finding herself unable to cope with crippling depression, Newcastle woman Shonagh Walsh felt like taking her own life until she began sewing to use the costume-making skills taught by her grandmother. Lee Henry reports.
Those coping with depression and other mental health illnesses can often find succour, a sense of wellbeing and an outlet for fears and frustrations through creativity. For 23-year-old Shonagh Walsh, who has struggled with anxiety and clinical depression since her mid-teens, relief comes via the weird and wonderful world of cosplay.
Cosplay is, essentially, the act of dressing up as characters from films, novels, comic books and video games, and it is a vibrant and growing subculture here thanks to regular Comic-Cons.
To attend the popular Film & Comic-Con in Belfast's Titanic Centre in March, for example, is to fight your way through a crowd of creatively costumed kids and adults dressed as everything from exotic ninjas to superheroes and heroines such as Superman and Wonder Woman.
Shonagh, who hails from just outside Newcastle, Co Down, was naturally drawn to cosplay after spending her childhood engrossed in gaming, fantasy novels, comics and creativity.
"Growing up in the countryside, living so rurally, I didn't spend much time out with friends. Instead, I read every fantasy book I could get my hands on and once the internet came about, I would read manga (Japanese animation) comics online," she says.
"My sister Nicole, brothers Niall, Conor and I shared everything, so gaming wasn't a solitary thing, and we loved the classic games, which felt communal. We took turns playing levels and watching the others play. I've been an avid gamer ever since."
It was through her grandmother Nellie O'Neill that Shonagh developed an interest in sewing, stitching and costume design. When she finally discovered cosplay and decided to attend a convention, she created her first costume with the help of her beloved granny from curtains and cereal boxes.
"I was 17 and had never seen anything like it before," she recalls. "For those who don't know what cosplay is, I can see how it could be a strange concept, but essentially conventions are just big costume parties. It's quite a big hobby for lots of people.
"My granny was so excited to see me doing something creative, though looking back now my first costume was embarrassingly bad, made from cut and painted curtains and cut up Ugg boots. Nevertheless, I received a huge amount of love from fellow Comic-Con goers and I even won an honourable mention prize, which was a huge surprise for me."
By this stage in her life, she had already been prescribed medication to combat her clinical depression.
While primary school was a "joy", Shonagh experienced bullying while attending secondary school, and was forced to drop out of studying for her A-levels at Belfast Metropolitan College due to her condition.
Her negative perception of anti-depressants, however, meant that she routinely stopped taking courses of medication halfway through. It proved to be a damaging approach that she now regrets.
"I had the awful idea in my head that by taking medication, somehow it revealed that there was something wrong with me.
"The stigma that existed, and still exists, around depression made me feel inadequate, especially as a 17 to 18-year-old, when people are constantly telling you just be happy, that you have nothing to be depressed about.
"So every time I was put on medication, it wouldn't be long before I would stop. I reacted differently to every anti-depressant I was given.
"One type in particular made me feel like I had flat-lined. I went from being erratically happy to very emotionally sad. Another made me suicidal.
"With hindsight, it's so clear how wrong I was. I was fighting a battle I had already lost. Taking medication can be scary because it makes the depression feel real, but I was making life harder for myself by trying to do it alone, without any kind of assistance."
Aged 19, and having given up on education, Shonagh found herself unemployed and drifting. She confirms that this was the period during which her depression was most acute. She clung to cosplay as a positive, something that "kept me from falling to complete rock bottom".
She eventually found genuine respite and catharsis through counselling, having spoken with her GP and a dedicated counsellor specialising in mental health. Now, she believes that talking about her condition, and the chasms of darkness that seemed to swallow her up, ultimately saved her life.
"One day I came across a leaflet for a place called PIPS, the suicide awareness and prevention charity's Mind Your Mate & Yourself facility in Newcastle, and I walked in through the doors already crying and shaking, and asked to speak with someone.
"I knew if I didn't talk to someone I would probably do something to myself. The people there welcomed me and treated me like family. I can't stress enough how important regular contact and open dialogue can be in preventing suicide."
The Steps2Work programme gave Shonagh an opportunity to begin again. It was through the ongoing training and employment scheme that she found her true vocation when she was placed as an amateur costumer with the Belvoir Theatre Company in Belfast.
"It changed my life," she says.
"Prior to that, I had only made costumes for myself with no lessons other than spending time with my granny.
"I travelled up to Belfast every day and got to work on costumes for their production of The Little Mermaid. It felt amazing to watch the play and get the production brochure with my name on it. I realised that I could make my hobby a paying career.
"Unfortunately, I had to leave that placement as the health of my grandmother was deteriorating, as, in turn, was my depression. Belvoir Players were so very kind to me, though.
"They were aware of my mental health issues and were so accommodating that they even let me work from home so that I could spend more time with my grandmother during her final months. I could never express how grateful I am to them."
Nellie O'Neill passed away on January 21, 2015, having previously suffered with breast cancer.
Shonagh was devastated, and for a while stopped working.
"It made me sad that I no longer had her guidance, but I soon realised that the best way to be close to her in death was to never stop creating.
"By the end of February, I had enrolled in a fashion and costume course at Belfast Metropolitan College and that's when my life started to change for the better. I know my nan would be so excited and happy for me."
Today, she partially pays her way through college with extra-curricular work mending costumes for other cosplayers and even designing costumes from scratch. Having won various competitions at conventions across Northern Ireland over the past few years, her reputation as a cosplayer of some considerable skill is now well established.
"My second cosplay went slightly viral when a girl I met from a convention posted photos online. It received a best fantasy costume award, which still astounds me as it was probably my laziest cosplay ever," Shonagh laughs.
"My third costume, one of the few I'm most proud of, won joint first place at Ireland's largest convention next to someone who constructed a full Ironman suit, so that was pretty amazing for me, being only 18 at the time."
Shonagh is certainly not the only young adult who finds acceptance and a creative outlet through cosplay, with more events taking place here, mainly in Belfast.
"It is actually quite big in Northern Ireland and it's still growing here, as our community is very young," she explains.
"There are fantastic events like the MCM Comic-Con, Belfast Film & Comic-Con, Q-Con, Ulster University Mini Con, Heroes and Legends and more, and many cosplayers travel around Europe and the US to attend events.
"I have a huge amount of fun at conventions. I dress up and don't have to be me, I can forget my typical world worries for a while.
"People talk to me about common interests, which helps with my anxiety greatly.
"Cosplay has helped me in a lot of ways. When I started, I had huge stage fright and hated public speaking. Now that I'm invited as a guest, and asked to do talks about cosplay, I've got so much better at that. What was at first terrifying I'm now fairly confident with.
"No matter where you go in the world, or no matter what club you join, there are always going to be negative people who will be nasty. But at the end of the day, we're just a bunch of nerds in costumes just trying to have fun."