Dr Jess Heron interviews Iain Cunningham about his experience of making the film 'Irene's Ghost'
Why did you decide to make the film, Irene’s Ghost?
It was only really when I had my daughter Isla that I started to properly question what went on and to try and reconcile things. I watched her grow and develop and it was amazing to me how fully rounded a very small child can be. I started to think about myself at that age, and what I had experienced. I started to see the world through the eyes of a 2 or 3 year old. I imagined disappearing out of Isla’s life without a trace and it was completely heart breaking. I also started to wonder what the connection might be between Irene and my own experiences, my own mental ill health a couple of years before. I started to feel it was my responsibility to Irene to find her in the way that I could. So that’s what I set out to do.
The most moving scenes in the film involve your father. Given the era’s stigma and lack of information- which were so beautifully conveyed in the film, what impact has the film has had on him?
I always respected the fact that my Dad didn’t want to talk about things, but when I started to find out things about Irene, I felt like I’d been propelled out of a cannon, that’s how compelled I was to do it. I was incredibly nervous about talking to him for the first time, I had to build myself up to do it. It felt like he’d held a lot of emotion inside him for a long time. As the search progressed, we started to understand each other more and more. I think somehow we met in the middle. I started to understand what he had been through, the pain and confusion, and the despair really. I think since making the film, and with a bit of time to digest the experience, our relationship has improved a lot. We can talk more openly than before, and I think we take the time to look after each other a bit more as well. He’s very keen now to try and help men in a similar situation to the place he found himself in, and might even train as a peer supporter for APP.
The film flits between real people and dreamlike animations. Why did you use this device?
I had always thought animation could be a way to help visualise the imaginative world I had as a child, and my slightly unreal or magical memories of my Mother. I had an illustrated baby book, and the palette came from that, those muted 70s tones. Mixing reality and animation hints at the way we construct stories from memories - our memories are not entirely truthful, and that felt like a nice visual metaphor. There’s also a naivety to the style which again echoes the world of a child
You demonstrate in the film that there is pleasure to be gained from open discussions with children about life’s difficult issues. Was it difficult to face the family ‘skeletons’ head on, in order to be able to do this?
When I started out, I realised that it would be important to my daughter to know her Grandmother as much as it was for me to know my Mother. Partly because of my own experiences as a child, I wanted to be as honest as I could with Isla about what I was doing and why. It’s been an incredibly valuable experience to go through together and has enabled us to talk about grief, mental health and well being, relationships and lots of other very important stuff that would have perhaps been more difficult without this real life adventure unfolding around us. People were very generous with me because they could sense how important it was to me, and I’m grateful for that.
What was your experience of meeting women and families through “Action on Postpartum Psychosis”? Did it help you or your family personally?
I vividly remember the first time I met with women from APP and started to realise that this illness could explain the things I had been hearing about from people. Developing relationships with some of those women has been one of the most rewarding and incredible parts of this process. I was able to understand the illness first hand, and felt a kinship with them somehow. They were very welcoming. Hearing about the bond they felt with their children, even in the grip of illness was very important to me personally. Meeting their partners helped me to understand more about my Dad’s position. Also, introducing Isla to the families that meet through APP helped me to talk to her about it all in a way she could understand.
Like many, you hadn’t heard of Postpartum Psychosis before making this film. Has finding out about PP helped or has it increased your sadness or anger at the loss of your mother?
I was very ignorant about mental health in general I think, before making the film, even though I probably felt I was quite clued up. I was incredibly ignorant about the postpartum period in particular, and yes, I hadn’t heard of PP. It’s quite complex how I feel about her PP, tied as it is to an era when treatment wasn’t as good as it is now and awareness was very low. I think people working in psychiatric care have a very tough job to do, and they probably did their best with the tools they had available to them. I wish there had been a different outcome, but it’s impossible to know if there were issues with her treatment beyond the large doses of drugs mentioned in her notes, which were commonplace at the time, but we now know can be harmful. I was angry that her illness seemed to have made it more difficult for people to talk about her after she was gone. Hopefully that stigma is changing.
What would you most like to change in the future for other families affected by PP?
I think more knowledge about PP in the wider community in future will mean that it will be picked up earlier and treatment given earlier. I think also that the broader understanding we have about mental health seems to be growing, so hopefully that will continue. I hope families can feel supported as a whole - partners and children too - and that there are the proper facilities, including more MBUs, so that the right care can be given to everyone regardless of where they live.
Has the making of the film and its wonderful reception helped you personally? Do you see its success as honouring your mother?
It does make me feel a sense of pride that I am able to share her story with people, and I will be able to share it with more people if the film has a good reception. In extreme cases, mental illness can rob someone of their life, and even of the way they are remembered. I hope that I’m changing the balance for my Mother a bit. I want people to hear about her, ordinary and extraordinary in her own way, as we all are.
What’s next for you and for the film?
We want to talk to people at screenings and give them more info about PP, and a space to share their experiences about mental health, supported by APP.
I want to make a tool to help families who want to start a difficult conversation about mental health, by creating a 360 degree video, which is a media I work in outside of this film. The film will show the way other families talk, with natural conversations between parents and children about PP and other issues around mental health.
After that, I’m keen to do something different, and have been developing some fiction projects, but I’m still drawn to stories which relate in some way to mental health and identity. I’m sure Irene’s Ghost will keep me busy for a while yet though!
'Irene's Ghost' screenings:
LONDON PREVIEW | Bertha DocHouse | 30/04/2019 | Buy Tickets
LONDON | Bertha DocHouse | 03 & 04/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
GLASGOW | Glasgow Film Theatre | 04/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
NEWCASTLE | Tyneside Cinema | 04/05/2019 | Buy Tickets
LONDON | Bertha DocHouse | 05 to 09/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
MANCHESTER | HOME | 10/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
BELFAST | Strand Arts Centre | 15/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
BIRMINGHAM | Midlands Arts Centre | 16/05/2019 | Buy Tickets
EDINBURGH | Filmhouse | 19/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
LONDON | Curzon Soho | 20/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
NUNEATON | Abbey Theatre | 29/05/2019 | Tickets Available Soon
HALIFAX | Square Chapel | 25/06/2019 | Buy Tickets
For more information, visit irenesghost.com
If you have experienced PP and are interested in helping Iain film discussions about mental health between parents and children, please get in touch: email@example.comRead full news item
On the 9th April, Dr Jess Heron, APP Director and Dr Sally Wilson, APP Training Coordinator, presented at the Midlands Maternity and Midwifery Festival at Leicester football club. They spoke to a packed conference hall of midwives, including student midwives about an evaluation of the 1-day workforce training that APP offer.
This series of conferences run across the UK and are a great platform for raising awareness of postpartum psychosis amongst midwives and other health professionals, which is one of APP's aims for 2019.
APP want to help health professionals to recognise early signs and symptoms, promote the importance of timely treatment, and talk about recovery and support needs for women and their families affected by postpartum psychosis. We are campaigning this year for compulsory training in perinatal mental health, including Postpartum Psychosis for midwives.
Can you help us? Future Midwife standards consultation
The Nursing & Midwifery Council have recently announced a consultation on the 'Future Midwife: Standards of Proficiency for Midwives'. We are delighted that Postpartum Psychosis has been specifically included as a core learning topic for midwives. We would like to make sure it stays included as these standards are refined and consulted upon. If you have experienced PP and would like to make comments, or are a midwife and would like to state how important it is that Postpartum Psychosis is in core midwife standards.
Please respond to the consultation by the 9th May 2019 via here or, please get in touch with Sally if you would like to give any feedback for APP's response. If you have have comments, quotes and stories that you could share with us about your midwifery care, these are really useful in helping to campaign.
APP will be responding to make sure postpartum psychosis and training in PP for midwives remains a focus in these standards.Read full news item
APP was delighted to be awarded a grant from Mind and Agenda’s Women Side by Side Programme for a one-year project in Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area of South Wales. The South Wales ActiononPP project will help us to:
- Set up a monthly face-to-face peer support group in the Aneurin Bevan Health Board region, but open to women from across South Wales
- Train and support a group of South Wales peer support volunteers
- Network with other agencies and develop methods of engaging and supporting women with PP, particularly women experiencing multiple disadvantage.
- Translate our patient information guides into Welsh.
- Raise awareness of PP in the region, amongst health professionals and in the media.
- Support women who are recently diagnosed and recovering, women at risk of developing PP and women who may have experienced PP many years ago but who are still experiencing the effects
We hope that through this project we can build and support an active community of volunteers in the region to support women and families affected by PP and to work towards real change in how PP is understood and treated in the region. Alongside this grant, we will be looking for opportunities to train health professionals throughout Wales and campaign for change, including for a mother and baby unit.
APP will be looking for two people to work with us (part-time) on this project, if you’d like to find out more about the project, or to be notified when we advertise the roles, please email us.Read full news item
On Saturday 24th November APP hosted a day for 20 of our volunteers in the beautiful venue of Winterbourne House and Gardens in Birmingham. The day was generously funded by the Rosa Woman 2 Woman Fund. It was a special day for everyone who attended, and those of us who facilitated the day.Read full news item
"On the 29th of October I joined the APP team as a peer support facilitator for the Lancashire and South Cumbria region. This coincided with the open day of the new Chorley MBU, Ribblemere.Read full news item
Irene’s Ghost, a film by Iain Cunningham, premiered at the Curzon , Mayfair on Saturday 13th Oct, at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival 2018.
Some of APP's staff and volunteers were able to attend the premier on the weekend and here's what Heather Heron, APP Fundraising Volunteer, had to say:Read full news item
We were very sad to say goodbye to APP’s Treasurer and Trustee, Sue Blamire, who retired at the end of March 2018 after 8 years. Staff and Trustees had a whip-round for a thank you present.Read full news item
After 6 years in the making, it’s a wrap for Iain Cunningham’s film Irene’s Ghost, which is premiering at the BFI London Film Festival this Autumn! Thank you to all the APP experts and volunteers who worked with Iain when he was researching his film, and to the many APP members who were filmed during Iain’s research.Read full news item
Postpartum Psychosis has, for many years, been shrouded in shame and fear, silencing the women and families who have suffered it. This silence has an impact that reverberates through our community.Read full news item
APP Director, Dr Jess Heron, and APP Wales Volunteers Sally Wilson, Sarah Dearden, Charlotte Harding & Barbara Cunningham attended the launch of the NSPCC Cymru / Wales report Bumps to Babies: Perinatal Mental Health in Wales. The excellent report, written by Sarah Witcombe-Hayes and supported by NSPCC, National Centre for Mental Health (NCMH), Mind Cymru, Mental Health Foundation and Maternal Mental Health Everyone’s Business Campaign, examines the experience of women who suffer pre and postnatal illness in Wales. It makes a number of recommendations, adding weight to the findings in the report by the Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee (Perinatal Mental Health in Wales, October 2017 ).Read full news item