Irene's Ghost, winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at SMHAF 2019, is the moving story of a man's attempt to discover the truth about the mother who died when he was three. In our latest filmmaker Q&A,director Iain Cunningham tells us the story behind the film, and explains why we need to talk more openly about mental health.
Congratulations on winning Best Feature Documentary at SMHAF. Does bringing this film to a mental health arts festival feel different to other screenings?
Thanks, it does actually. The past few years have been an education for me, and as I’ve learned more, from speaking to people who’ve experienced mental ill health and from going to talks and conferences, I’ve become more and more keen to help amplify the voice of mental health campaigners in any way I can. Screenings and Q and As we’ve done so far have helped to raise awareness of postpartum psychosis, and have also helped to encourage the idea that talking and sharing can help. After watching the film, people often share similar experiences, of loss, or about identity, or stories about mental health, and I think screenings can be quite cathartic for the audience. I’m looking forward to sharing the film alongside other people who might have travelled similar paths.
In the film you describe how, at the age of 18, you discovered your mother’s baby book and they were full of strange statements about blood and god. Had you ever suspected before then that she might have had a mental illness?
Growing up, Irene was a complete mystery to me, and what happened wasn't really spoken about. Even at 18 when I saw the writing in the book, I still didn’t think of mental illness. I had very little knowledge of mental illness at the age of 18, and as far as I had been told, she had been in a coma, so the idea of writing strange things in a book wasn’t inconsistent with that. I guess I imagined that she had suffered maybe some kind of brain injury which might have led to the writing. It was only really once I started to look into it more after the birth of my first child that I began to suspect mental illness more strongly, and that feeling grew as I learned more about her experiences. Before this film, like many people, I hadn’t ever heard of postpartum psychosis, and had very little knowledge of bipolar disorder.
You’ve said that, for many years, it was difficult to talk to your family about Irene. What would be the response when her name came up?
I think lots of families have sensitive subjects that people tread carefully around, and ours was no different. During my childhood, her name didn’t really come up at all to be honest. It was something I spoke to my Nan about and not really anyone else. If ever I mentioned it to my Dad, it was clearly a painful subject, and I didn’t want to upset him.
A big part of the film is your attempt to persuade your dad to talk about Irene, something he is clearly reluctant to do. Was that the most challenging part of the process? It’s uncomfortable to watch at times. How has making the film changed your relationship with your family? Does your dad, in particular, seem different now?
At the start of this process I didn’t know what my Dad had experienced as the partner of someone who became suddenly and drastically ill with mania and delusions, and subsequent severe depression. Directly after having a baby, which is supposed to be a time of joy, it’s unfathomable to me how he coped. If I had known those things, perhaps I wouldn’t have pushed things with him in the way that I did. It was certainly challenging, although there is humour in the film and in our relationship too.
In the end I think it was a conversation that was necessary for us. Children need to know about their parents, and about mental health too. Our natural instinct is to protect and shield, but with mental illness, I think talking and sharing about it within families can demystify and destigmatise, particularly when someone like your Mum or Dad or brother or sister has direct experience. It encourages understanding.
Since the film I think my Dad and I have come to understand each other in a way that we just hadn’t before. I think we have a deeper emotional relationship, having been on this journey together. We still like to talk about football though, you need a safe middle ground.
When you reached the age Irene was when she died you experienced your own mental health issues but didn’t seek help. Can you tell us more about that? How do you look back on that now?
I often thought growing up that I might die early. I think it’s partly due to uncertainty about my Mum and what had happened. As I reached the age she was when she died I started to feel physical symptoms of illness including daily headaches and sickness. I got very anxious that something was wrong with me. It began to dominate my thoughts, and eventually I started to suffer what I can now recognise as anxiety or panic attacks. It affected my work and it affected how I felt around other people for a long time. Eventually I got better, but not until I had changed my diet and routines and working life, and tried to reduce stress as much as possible. I’d always been very strong and confident, so it was a shock to me how vulnerable I became. At the time I didn’t really consider it a mental thing. I went to the GP about some of it, but mental health was never really a part of the conversation, that element was overlooked really. Now I look back I think it was pretty clearly related to my state of mind and the unresolved things from when I was younger.
What are you working on next?
I’m busy with the release of the film, which will be on a cinema tour throughout the UK in May, June and July with Q and As. Information about where can be found at www.irenesghost.com/screenings
Winner of the Best Feature Documentary award at SMHAF 2019, Irene's Ghost screens at Glasgow Film Theatre at 1.15pm on Saturday 4th May, followed by a Q&A with director Iain Cunningham, Catharine Carver from Action on Postpartum Psychosis and Clare Thompson from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. Click here to book tickets for the screening.