Didier Meillerand, at 55 years old, is a father of three children who he says he learns from every day. With a natural curiosity about others, being a journalist was a calling for him. He sees himself as a "passer-by" whose role, through his many interviews, is to delve deeper into the subject matter, to understand the values and beliefs of his interviewees.
He is also the founder of "Psychodon, Acting for Mental Health", an organization that brings together various associations, beneficiaries, and patrons in the field of mental health. Their goal is to help these groups collaborate and innovate together, working on local projects and initiatives that promote mental health in their communities. In addition to connecting these groups, Psychodon is primarily focused on raising awareness about mental illness through research, support for patients and families, and prevention in local communities. To achieve this, Psychodon organizes an annual event called "Mental Illness Night," which is held on the legendary stage of the Olympia in Paris (France). This event provides an opportunity to break down stigmas and to celebrate life with mental illness.
What is the moment you realized you had mental health ?
This is a tricky question, as it would involve pinpointing a specific moment. I believe we should be humble about the time we live in. Mental health has always been important to me in a psychological and genealogical way. My interest in the topic is connected to the fact that my grandmother's brother, Marius, who suffered from schizophrenia, passed away on the day I was born. It's not a coincidence that I am now developing The Psychodon, which aims to reduce the stigma surrounding psychological illnesses. Uncle Marius was known as the village madman, but he protected my grandmother from my grandfather's cruelty. This experience has led me to want to raise awareness about mental health.
If I had to identify a specific moment that influenced my interest in mental health, I would say it was in 1988 when I visited my brother at the psychiatric hospital Le Vinatier in Lyon. His psychiatrist invited me to see him in an occupational therapy workshop where he was working on wood with other patients. Some were making statues, others were making different objects, and my brother was making a wooden pear. That day I thought, "Wow. My brother is in a psychiatric hospital and he's making wooden pears. He must be sick.”
On the way home, on the subway, I realized that I would approach my interviews differently from now on. My brother had taught me that a pear could be made of wood. I used to think that pears were green, to be cooked in compote, in pie or in brandy at the limit. But I never imagined that they could be made of wood. My brother opened me to another material, his difference is an exceptional wealth. Every time I do interviews, I look for the other person in another material than the one he appears to me with, because it's the best way to get information out of them.
That day I thought, "Wow. My brother is in a psychiatric hospital and he's making wooden pears. He must be sick.”
On that day, I realized that I had mental health too, and that my brother's psychological illness was a weakness for him and our family, but at the same time, it was a unique strength that allowed me to develop Psychodon. I didn't want to hear comments like "You're coming to eat chicken on Sunday? But not with your brother" anymore. I wanted to change the way people viewed mental illness and put it in the spotlight, through the medium of television, so that everyone could say to themselves "I have so much to learn".
What is the problem you wanted to solve in terms of mental health in France ?
In the field of mental health in France, it is the division that should be changed. Currently, the various stakeholders are quite divided and focused on their own specific concerns, which are legitimate and important. However, this only addresses part of the problem of destigmatizing mental illness. As long as everyone is focused on their own specific area, we will not be able to come together and make a real impact. Some focus on families, others on medication, some on depression, others on bipolarity, some on work and people with mental disabilities, etc. This leads to a lot of fragmentation, when in reality, mental health is a complex and multifaceted issue. We need to come together and unite, so that we can be strong in our own specific areas, but also move forward in the same direction in the service of the cause - to raise awareness and increase donations for mental health.
What is your proposed solution to solve this problem ?
To come together, a strong branding strategy is needed. Like the Telethon for muscular dystrophy and rare diseases, or Sidaction for AIDS, for mental health to become a cause, each organization must put aside their own ego and focus on the bigger picture, while remaining strong in their own field. The Psychodon brand, with the help of artists, television, radio, and other means of communication, can bring different stakeholders on board, like a big locomotive that pulls along different cars, each rich and legitimate with their own unique contributions, on the tracks towards destigmatization and media coverage.
Psychodon has a mission, to make mental health a cause and increase donations within 10 years. We have powerful events throughout the year that help us achieve this goal. Every October 10th, we release the mental health barometer and specifically, focus on mental health in the workplace. On the same day, we organize a fun evening with comedians, "Psychodon Laughs". Throughout the year, we also run campaigns on radio, television, social media, etc. We distribute useful information and share testimonials from associations and patients to help mobilize citizens.
"The Psychodon has a mission, to make mental health a cause and increase donations within 10 years."
And, there's the annual show at the Olympia, the MAIN event. It's one-of-a-kind : the only television show dedicated to mental health ! Every second weekend in June, celebrities come together to help destigmatize mental illness. It may seem paradoxical, but we don't focus on the “pathos”, we don't necessarily associate The Psychodon with illness. We also talk about mental health and, most importantly, we sing ! Because at the Olympia, people usually go there to have a good time, to see their favorite singer or to enjoy a show that brings them joy in life. With Psychodon, we do highlight serious illnesses, but we also try to celebrate and bring positivity. I believe it's the first time that a diverse group of associations have come together and united in a legendary hall to raise awareness about mental illnesses.
What are your plans for the future ?
I can tell you that we are currently preparing for the fifth annual show at the Olympia, which will take place next June and will be broadcast live on C8 channel thanks to the cameras of the Canal+ group.
As for the “Psychodon Laughs”, they will be going on tour. The comedians will perform at their comedy club in Paris on October 10th, and then in several cities across France. And for 2023, we will be launching another campaign that is closely tied to sports and physical health. We will be placing a strong emphasis on the connection between the body and mental health.
Is there an artistic work, or someone inspiring that had a positive impact on your mental health ?
One artwork that has had a significant impact on me is Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. I was very young, it was very cold, and when I saw this painting in Amsterdam, I felt warmth inside, I was deeply moved by the light and I thought to myself that it was exactly what I felt. I knew that Vincent Van Gogh had been hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital, and I thought "Wow, that's kind of like what happened with my brother ?". Here's someone who's been labeled as crazy, hospitalized, cutting off his ears, and yet he's able to paint something so beautiful.
This painting is extraordinary, it conveys a message that there are more colors at night than during the day, it's a different perspective of the world. We can draw parallels with mental illness as well, mental illness is not the night, it is not the darkness. If my brother had not shown me his illness, if I hadn't had the chance to learn about people who suffer from mental illnesses and their families, there wouldn't be any Psychodon ?
We have preconceptions, beliefs, but in fact, if we change our perspective we realize that mental illness is full of colors that we don't see because we are constrained by our beliefs, our perspectives. We just don't look at it the right way, that's what I learned from Van Gogh's painting “The Starry Night”.
What is the best way to contact you ?
We hope to see you on June 12th at the Olympia with our sponsor, Yannick Noah and many other artists. Be sure to check out our website at www.psychodon.org. You can sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on the latest news, or contact us through email or through our social media channels listed on the website. Of course, you can also send me a message on LinkedIn. 🙂
Interviewed by Thomas Cantaloup, on Decembrer 12, 2022
Photo credits : Thomas Cantaloup