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How a long-running staff dispute at a west Belfast school triggered its head boy's mental health problems

Peter Kennan began suffering panic attacks after speaking to the media about how the dispute at De La Salle school could impact on his exam results. Now the young actor is using art therapy to help others cope with mental health issues

Glenavy actor Peter Kennan on stage with the cast of Blackout
Glenavy actor Peter Kennan on stage with the cast of Blackout
Peter Kennan on stage with Anna Warke

By Stephanie Bell

A remarkable young actor who has struggled with depression is bringing a fresh approach to helping young people with mental health through a new campaign called PostPieces.

Peter Kennan (22) from Glenavy just graduated this summer from drama school in Wales, where he first set up his charity which uses art therapy to encourage young people to talk about mental health.

Now going for just over a year he has held a number of art workshops in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast in collaboration with local artists.

But more than that, he is on a mission to bring art into the heart of local communities and promote emerging artists while encouraging people to care for their mental health.

When he graduated in July from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama he could never have guessed his first stage role would involve helping bring a similar message to young people.

Peter has just finished a six-week tour of 40 schools in Northern Ireland with Blackout, a unique project launched by the Lyric Theatre in association with the Department of Justice and Hydebank Wood College.

The aim of Blackout is to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour by developing awareness in young people of the possible consequences of taking drugs and alcohol.

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Ultimately it aims to get young people talking and asking for help, exactly what Peter has been achieving through PostPieces.

Peter played the lead part of James, a young man from a dysfunctional family whose personal circumstances and reactions to adversity lead him into drugs and alcohol.

The high-energy production was followed by a question and answer session with a panel of three young people from Hydebank Wood College, who have first-hand experience of being in custody and of the judicial system.

For Peter it was a smashing debut for his career and one which echoed his own experiences of mental health and what he is hoping to achieve through his new campaign.

He says: "PostPieces was founded just over a year ago and was born out of my struggles with my own mental health.

"Like James in the play, I had bottled things up for too long; which led to me falling into a very dark place in my life.

"Through rehearsals and preparing to play James, I came to recognise a similarity between how both me and the character unhelpfully dealt with our situation - a tendency to withdraw and a fear of asking for help.

"The hope was that the young people watching the play could recognise just how detrimental it can be if you don't open up and ask for help when you need it.

"PostPieces is about encouraging as many people as possible to share their experiences with mental health creatively so that we can break down the social stigma surrounding it."

James lives in Glenavy but went to school in west Belfast, where he was head boy in De La Salle Boys.

While studying for his A-levels the school was the subject of controversy surrounding long-term teacher absenteeism, leading to pupils and parents picketing at the gates over concerns about exam results.

As head boy at the time Peter spoke to the media about his concerns, which he says triggered panic attacks.

He says: "That was the first time I went to counselling. I think the fact there were very few teachers in the school combined with the stress and pressure you put yourself under to try and do well triggered anxiety in me.

"When I went to drama school, the combination of moving away to Wales and training to be an actor, which is quite a competitive and judgmental environment, knocked my confidence and I was diagnosed with depression.

"I did withdraw into myself but one way I got myself through was to get a pen and piece of paper and scribble on it to get it out, or even just looking at different types of art helped me to make sense of how I was feeling."

During a visit home for Easter during his second year Peter was shocked to hear a 14-year-old boy in his community had taken his own life.

Also during that holiday he went to see the play The Man Who Fell To Pieces in the Crescent Arts Centre, an imaginative piece of theatre which looks at what it means to be broken.

Profoundly impacted by both, he had the idea for his campaign, which he hopes to establish as a charity.

"I realised I had found a coping mechanism through art and after the young teenager took his life and seeing the play, I decided I needed to do something to help," he says.

"I approached Tinderbox Theatre and asked them to partner with me to launch a campaign.

"We also got the support of the Crescent Arts Centre to set up art workshops and we have held a series of them during the school holidays in the summer and also during the Halloween break.

"We hold workshops for young people aged 13 to 18 and also for people over 18 and we've even had people in their 70s come along."

Art workshops, though, have only played a part in this ambitious campaign. PostPieces is also reaching people through hundreds of flyers which feature Peter's story on one side and a list of helpline and leading mental health charity contacts on the other.

The campaign has also devised postcards encouraging people to create a piece of their own artwork on one side while writing their experiences of mental health on the other, to be left in public places for strangers to find.

It is currently working on a series of 'crisis cards' designed to be kept by people in their wallets or purses.

For Peter it is all about personalising the campaign to encourage people to get help.

He says: "Putting my story on the flyers was an attempt to put a personal face to it. I know there are good charities and helplines out there, but when I was ill they felt very clinical and cold to me. I felt that I would be just one of many people speaking to one of many volunteers at the end of a phone.

"By trying to add a personal face to it we hope to encourage people to open up and we want to try and take the stigma away from mental health so that it is easier for people to get help and support.

"The postcards are a way for people to anonymously help each other and get support out there, and the crisis cards are something we are working on at the moment.

"They will have the contact details of local support organisations on one side and a space on the other for the person to add the names of friends and family they could turn to in a crisis.

"We are also planning a big reach out to schools and youth clubs with a new programme to bring our art workshops to them. We have feedback forms in our workshops and it is amazing how many people have been helped so far.

"We've had people taking part who are dealing with addiction right through to people who are just really, really shy and for whom just being there was a huge step forward for them."

Another exciting new project aimed at getting art into the community involves getting local artists to create a piece of fine art on an A5 flyer with mental health support details on the back.

Peter explains: "We want them to be high quality free prints which we will be putting into pubs and cafes and community centres.

"Art should not just be in a gallery and should be available in every area of society.

"Art therapy is seen as middle class and a bit elitist and we want to change that and make it available to everyone regardless of background."

And for Peter himself, devoting all his spare time to developing initiatives and bringing them to life through PostPieces, has greatly boosted his own mental health and wellbeing.

He says: "When you are depressed you lack motivation and through PostPieces and doing Blackout it has made me feel like I have a purpose. It has helped me to be able to get out and do something which I feel is having an impact.

"As an actor you are stepping into other people's shoes and getting applauded for that and there can be a sense of not being confident just being yourself.

"Coming to terms with who I am and learning to be comfortable with myself is something that I am still going through.

"I am not 100% confident and I am exploring that with the groups in the workshops as much as the participants are.

"For me it is about appreciating the small things and reminding myself how fortunate I am. If you are in difficulty the support is out there, a lot of it is about letting your guard down and allowing yourself to receive the support."

As a fledgling actor, he is delighted the Lyric Theatre gave him a chance to work on such a powerful project as Blackout to work with.

He already has more work lined up, including a play in England and a short film, although both are bound by confidentiality agreements at present.

He adds: "As a kid I would have looked at the Lyric and would have only dreamt of ever being able to get to work there as it is where all the great actors are, so it is just incredible to get my first job through the theatre's creative learning department.

"It is the nature of acting that there will be periods of unemployment and that's when I am able to work with PostPieces.

"We are reaching out to young people through instagram @postpieces and our website and we have ideas for lots of exciting new projects which we hope will help in some way to address the mental health crisis which Northern Ireland is facing at the moment."

You can find out more at www.postpieces.wixsite.com

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