stage beyond star darren’s brave message on mental health recovery

Stage Beyond has been a lifeline for one of the company’s newest members who has spoken bravely about battling depression and anxiety.

Darren Bond joined the local Derry-based theatre company in January as part of his return to physical activities following the global pandemic and it is also helping improve his mental health.

Stage Beyond, supported by National Lottery funding through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, was formed primarily for adults with learning disabilities and welcomes members with a physical disability equally keen to avail of professional arts training provided by the award-winning company.

Darren (36) from the Waterside, is a wheelchair user and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic he had a busy schedule of activities including wall climbing at Foyle Arena and a movement to dance class. 

“It all stopped as soon as Covid hit and I was two years in isolation,” explained Darren. “I got depressed, it wasn’t the easiest thing to open about which I did last June and now I am going to counselling and on medication for depression and anxiety.” 

“I realise now that mental health is nothing to be ashamed about, unfortunately there are people still suffering and not talking about it. The good thing is that you can get better.” 

Darren recalled how the Covid restrictions impacted his ability to keep physically active and the acute lack of social interaction during lockdown left him feeling very isolated.   

“My mum worked all day, and I was in the house on my own. I was probably over-thinking and watching way too much TV. Basically, I was lying in bed and thought there was no point in getting up as there was no-one to talk to.” 

Darren has found that getting back out of isolation to participate in a range of new activities, helps both his mental and physical health. He was introduced to Stage Beyond through his social worker and has clearly found his niche.  

“From day one I felt welcomed coming here. Everybody has each other’s backs; I feel I can talk to anyone in here. It’s good, I’m enjoying the social aspect and the fact that everyone looks out for each other, they are all very supportive.” 

“I hadn’t done any acting previously, but it was something I always wanted to try,” said Darren, who likes comedy films. He’s a big fan of the American actor Will Ferrell who stars as Buddy, the human raised by Santa’s elves in the hugely popular Christmas movie ‘Elf’. 

“’Elf’ is still one of my favourite films, I never miss it. Will Ferrell really inspired me to give acting a go because what’s the worst that could happen?” he joked. 

Stage Beyond’s award-winning ‘Carer of the Year’ Karen Burnett assists with Darren’s chair coming on and off stage for all his scenes. 

Darren recently toured with the company after taking on his first acting role as one of the doctors in Stage Beyond’s widely acclaimed adaptation of the Charlie Chaplin satirical movie masterpiece, ‘The Great Dictator’.  

Describing his debut stage performance at An Grianan Theatre, Letterkenny, Darren said: “It was a bit nerve-wracking to begin with, but I settled into it. I had a few extra lines and was able to adapt so I was pleased about that.” 

According to Darren, “‘The Great Dictator’ has an important message to get out there about disability which again, I think is a taboo subject.” 

“People just think that because I am in a wheelchair, I can’t do anything or have a learning disability. They assume that I have problems with my speech and understanding which is not the case. They tend to pre-judge and at times come out with inappropriate remarks”. 

“There are even some people who think I can’t feed myself and toilet myself, which I can do, and those incorrect assumptions can be hurtful to hear. The only thing I need assistance with is getting dressed. They probably don’t mean it, it’s just ignorance and lack of awareness. Schools are probably doing their best through education, but more could be done to promote wider disability inclusion.” 

Darren says that since joining Stage Beyond, his confidence has improved, he’s making new friends and looking forward to building on his acting skills as well as trying some writing. 

The company members are currently working on their next production which will be a grand variety performance in the historic St Columb’s Hall at the end of June. 

Darren added: “My parents are proud of me, not only that I’m doing this but that I opened up about my depression, it was me who made the phone call about my mental health in June last year. I was on a waiting list for counselling, but I didn’t want to wait that long, so I decided to go privately and that is ongoing.” 

“It was around the same time that I went to see ‘The Great Dictator’ when it was first performed in the Millennium Forum and now, I am part of Stage Beyond.” 

As well as attending Stage Beyond twice a week at the Forum, Darren also goes to wheelchair basketball and the Tuned In project. 

Dee Conaghan, Artistic Director of Stage Beyond, said she was delighted to welcome Darren to the company where he was showing great potential. She also paid tribute to Darren’s courage in speaking so openly about mental health. 

She said: “Stage Beyond offers professional arts training in a variety of disciplines. Our aims are to encourage self-esteem, sociability, and life skills. Darren performed admirably in ‘The Great Dictator’ having only recently joined the company, he has a keen flair for comedy and writing and we are looking forward to him shining in new roles including our variety performance in June.” 

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