Illumination 15 – Josh Coates

“If the work you make provokes people into discussing mental health then you’re doing something great.”

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Josh Coates, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m Josh and I’m a theatre maker based in Manchester. Theatre maker is a go to term for people who tend to write, direct and perform under various guises and for numerous projects. If you flip it around it’s a good way to understand it. I make theatre. Out of context it sounds like I make the sets and props. Part of me wishes I did do that, because I’d have more transferable skills!

I go through periods of working full-time in theatre but sometimes when funding comes through, I struggle for a bit, apply for loads of various jobs and do something part-time for a bit. I’ve been in and out of part-time work for about 5 years now.

The theatre work that I make aims to create a raw, honest human interaction between myself and the audience. I talk about the politics of everyday life in a hope to understand my place in society better. I had a show called Get Yourself Together that was about being depressed and on Jobseekers Allowance.

I was a supported artist at the Royal Exchange and I’ve toured work nationally and internationally. I play about with a theatre company based in Manchester called Powder Keg. We have fun.

I got sent these interview questions in June and didn’t really give myself time to respond to it. There was a rushed version of my answers left open for about a month and I’d limply add to it after rehearsals. I scrapped the interview before I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Today (Friday 13th October), I went to the doctors to ask about talking therapies and eczema. I got some cream to help my skin and a phone number to help my head. Someone from Self Help Services talked me through a referral. I chose to do an online form rather than talking about my anxiety and depression for the second time that day. I’m struggling at the moment.

My depression makes it impossible to see all the positive things in my life and it has a profound effect on my relationships with other people. My anxiety makes my self-esteem plummet and makes me terrified of doing ordinary things like crossing the road. Like, I’m genuinely a little bit terrified every time I cross a road.

 

When my depression feels more low-key, it really helps to discover something new. I enjoy finding new stuff to get me going. It distracts me from my own thoughts for a bit and occupies my time with something I find interesting. The best things I’ve found recently include an opera that uses archive Fugazi material as its basis a, Nightvale-esque meme page about a small UK village and Mount Eerie’s 2017 album A Crow Looked at Me.

GET YOURSELF TOGETHER-27

For years I didn’t allow myself to get scared by horrible thoughts or engage in crippling, self-destructive actions. I just kind of took it as a part of me that I have shitty opinions about myself.

My granddad died about 2 years ago now and I have a picture of him up in my room. I’m not going to tell you that when I have suicidal thoughts, I just think about what my granddad would say, as I feel like that isn’t that helpful.

I remember his funeral and I remember seeing my loved ones suffering. I remember seeing them all crying. I saw my granddad cry once. I remember I had a really vivid dream about my granddad crying at my funeral. That haunted me. I needed to escape that.

When my thoughts are big and all-consuming, I escape. I get out and leave. I’ll leave the space it’s happening in. If I can’t leave, I’ll try and introduce something new into the space, a new presence to help. I call the Samaritans a lot and I feel like that does the trick. They bring a different, caring energy into the space I’ve created. The Samaritans have saved my life on more than once occasion. I’ve never written that down before. That feels positive.

I recently got a plant as well and I’m having a bit of a thing with it. I’ve told myself if I can look after the plant well enough for a year that means I can look after myself for a year. It’s been really interesting to notice how my relationship to care has shifted since I’ve anthropomorphised an aloe vera plant.  He’s called Alain. He’s French. 

 —- 

From time to time, my mental health will affect my creative drive. Sometimes to combat negativity I throw myself completely at making theatre. I find it hard to express myself at times (hello I am a man how are you today?) and making theatre helps me in understanding myself and how society sees me. Or the opposite happens and I feel like I’m failing at what I’m doing and I stay home that day because I’m failing on many levels and it’s hard to comprehend.

I’d tell other creatives who struggle with mental illness that there’s a very real chance that your work will only ever be read based on your mental health, especially if you’ve talked about it publicly before. This might be your intention. It might not be. At first it really annoyed me because I am more than my mental health. I’d make shows about failure and people would read my depression into the show. Only recently, I’ve realised that that’s an okay thing. If the work you make provokes people into discussing mental health then you’re doing something great.

Also, collaborate. Find people you trust and collaborate with them. Support of people is important and especially when it’s your creative work. Anna Ryder and James Varney helped me make Get Yourself Together. I couldn’t have articulated what was going on in my head as well if it wasn’t for their input.

If you work with an institution like a theatre, there are people you can go to who will listen. They are there for the wellbeing of the artist they support. If there isn’t anyone that fits this description, have a discussion with someone there about possibly setting up a Mental Health First Aid course session. It could save a life.

Twitter // Website // Morale Is High Since We Gave Up Hope

Illumination 14 – DeAnna A.

“Throughout everything – my emotional upheavals and crises from adolescence through to adulthood – creativity has been a stable bedrock.”

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by DeAnna A, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m DeAnna A (you can call me Dee), a musician and activist based in the UK.

My diagnosis is Borderline Personality Disorder, which can sound scary! It definitely doesn’t have the best reputation. People with BPD are thought of as bunny boilers, femme fatales, or loose cannons… think of all the negative representations in films like the unenviable Single White Female, Fatal Attraction or just plain vague and misleading representations such as Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted.

Borderline Personality Disorder has a number of characteristics and they can manifest themselves in a wide and wonderful range of flavours. I can speak broadly about the diagnostic criteria and only, of course, my own personal experience of them.

First and foremost is emotional instability (in fact, an alternate name for BPD is ’emotionally unstable personality disorder’, according to the ICD-10). In me, this manifests itself as PASSION. When I’m happy, I’m passionate about whatever is in front of me and this includes politics, music, art, writing, work. It can be a tremendous source of energy and inspiration.

The flip side of this is that my emotional intensity also extends to severely feeling negative emotions – depression, anxiety, fear, shame, dread, you name it. It’s no surprise that I was a goth as a teenager and never fully grew out of it. I’m the type of person that, if I’m feeling bad, I’ll metaphorically bake a goddamn black cake and embrace that feeling.

I’ll throw myself a pity party with black ballons. This definitely comes out in our songs too – I mean, our band name is ‘Muertos’ which means ‘the dead’ in Spanish, named both after my Mexican heritage and my love for their famous spiritual (and gothy!) celebration, Día de los Muertos.

This PASSION, emotional instability and energy can also lead to the unstable sense of self that is common in BPD. With varying moods experienced with such intensity, it’s very easy to completely lose perspective – one moment, I am an activist and live 100% for that. The next I’m a career woman, confident and aspirational and climbing the ladder. The next I’m a bohemian musician and want to run off and leave everything behind and just play the violin. If I do anything I do it 100%. I recently started studying Psychology at university and got a distinction in my first two modules, this is whilst juggling a full-time job and another nearly full-time job as a freelance musician in not one, not two but THREE bands, not to mention being a good partner and mum to my two cats.

I personally have to be careful to not try to be all things to all people. This manifestation of BPD may as well be called FOMO – fear of missing out – fear of not being the right person so you try to be EVERYONE. My obsessions may seem funny and they can be channelled for good, but sometimes it can feel very confusing wearing so many hats and switching between them – the world spins. My approach has always been to grab the opportunities by the cojones, but in my recovery, I’ve started to become more discerning about what and who I allow to take up my time. No is a very powerful word.

There are lots of other aspects to BPD – including the intense fear of abandonment. Many people with the disorder have experienced some form of abandonment in their life that continues to haunt them. That’s the only way to describe it. It’s like a ghost – you may know it’s not real, and that a present-day situation that has triggered off these feelings again is just an echo of the past – but when you get that deep sensation it’s every bit as terrifying and chilling to the bones as encountering a phantom staring at you through the window in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I don’t know how to cope with this phantom and react in bad ways. This feeling of abandonment, the belief that ‘no one likes me, no one cares about me, I have no purpose or worth’ is so deeply experienced that I can begin to question my own existence. The ultimate existential crisis.

Emptiness is another common feeling – when facing severe emotions such as abandonment, it can put everything into question and you may lose sense of perspective, which way is up, which way time-space-or gravity is pulling, or feel that all meaning has been wiped out.

Other times, instead of being an intense emotion, it may also be a low-grade chronic kind of emptiness. People who are addicted to drama, to doing impulsive things and using these damaging coping mechanisms in order to feel something, to feel alive, may often feel empty in the absence of drama. For me, I was so used to instability, so used to things being fucked up, that it took me a long time to feel comfortable and trust in my happy life – that my partner is real and not going anywhere, that I really do have a stable roof over my head, that I do have friends that care, that I am good at my job and not complete rubbish, etc. I was always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under my feet, as it had been so many times before. I have to remember that the rug is still here.

Like many people with BPD, I used to self-harm. For me, this took the form of cutting myself and I am left with a lovely little geometric pattern on both arms as a reminder of those times. Other times it was taking reckless overdoses, not out a desire to end my life, but out of complete disdain and disregard for my body. I also suffered from a severe eating disorder. Anorexia, for which I was hospitalised on four lengthy occasions, was my preferred method of harming myself. Because of my lack of stable self-image and self-worth, I felt that I didn’t deserve to take up space. I felt that I was never good enough. I began essentially turning myself inside-out, hoping my hard skeletal bones would protect me like some sort of exoskeleton. I coped by becoming as small and contained as possible, and by being crueller to myself than anyone else could ever be. It is a slow suicide to which I hope to never return.

I could go on and talk about the other criteria – the intense relationships, having so little confidence in yourself that you idealise others and then completely lose heart and crash when they show themselves to be mere humans rather than the idols you had made them out to be, the sometimes dissociating from oneself and in times of great difficulty, losing touch with reality like it is behind a pane of impenetrable aquarium glass, the anger that comes in waves, like all the other intense emotions.

I’m giving this interview in the hope that others can relate – because at the end of the day, no one is their diagnosis – we are all human beings. Many aspects of BPD will be part of the microcosm of daily human experience, it’s just that some of us experience it on a greater and deeper level.

I am “recovered”. Well, at least 90% so, according to my former therapist and the lady who saved by life, Amanda Watson. For a long time, more than 15 years, I struggled to get the help I needed. People with BPD have very specific requirements for their treatment however due to lack of funding and resources, the therapy we need (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy or DBT) is unfortunately not widely available on the NHS.

For this and many other reasons, I am a big advocate and campaigner for properly funding our NHS and making sure it is fully publically owned. It is completely unethical that private outsourced companies profit off illness and misery. I have been in the mental health system for more than a decade, and at times was turned away because my condition is TOO HARD TO TREAT (e.g. they knew I needed urgent help, but they could not provide it, so they gave me nothing).

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is the gold standard and one of the only therapies that is strongly evidenced to help with BPD. I actually feel like DBT should be given to the whole human population because you learn so many valuable skills – in DBT, people aren’t crazy or bad, they just lack ‘skilful means’. As a result, I have started to notice that many so called normal people also lack skilful means and could do with learning about the four modules of DBT – mindfulness, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness (e.g. skilful communication and assertiveness) and distress tolerance, e.g. treating yourself kindly.

In addition to continually practicing the DBT skills, there are other habits I have that help keep me on the course of recovery. My favourite tool in my recovery toolkit is meditation. I meditate EVERY DAY, this means even if I have to get up early before work, or stay up late after a gig, even if, ESPECIALLY IF, I don’t feel like doing it.

Meditation is powerful when you get into a routine with it, when you don’t do it just because you’re in the mood or because it feels nice. Sometimes the difficulties, fears and anxieties that come into my mind are very real, and meditation helps me to deal effectively and face those things rather than reacting in a destructive manner. It’s about facing reality head-on, sitting face to face and eye to eye and making friends with the glorious messiness and constant imperfection that is life. And other times, meditation can help us see through the stories that our mind spins, for that is what our minds do, constantly spin tales. It’s about watching the hurricane rather than getting caught up and swept away by it.

It also helps me in my life off the meditation cushion. Meditation helps me practice taking each moment as it comes, approaching people and situations dialectically (from all sides, not from a self at the centre of the universe perspective), engaging in the world and not buying into stories that make people or things to be all good or all bad. Once I’m clear on my aim in any given situation, instead of reacting in an emotional manner, I can ask myself what would be the most skilful, compassionate and effective way of approaching the situation.

One of my favourite practices that I recommend to anyone struggling with difficult feelings is the Metta Bhavana meditation – “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at peace, may I be of service”. Practicing metta (universal loving-kindness) takes us outside of ourselves and helps us have compassion for all beings, even those who we disagree with or who may have treated us badly. This focus on others is a large part of my recovery – I do not want to psychoanalyse myself forever, I want to get on and help the world be a better place.

However, sitting in meditation isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. When dealing with some deep, all consuming shit, there may be times when we need to fully feel, embody and appropriately act on our emotions to process them. This is the dialectic between acceptance and change. For situations where change is what is needed, I recommend, no word of a lie, witchcraft. For everyone regardless of creed or lack thereof, what I mean is tap into your subconscious for deeper wisdom that your rational mind is not able to reach, read those tarot cards for a new perspective, write down all your hurts and worries and sorrows and burn them, let them go with the smoke.

Ritual can touch us and help us move on. Humans are not rational beings, much as we like to think ourselves so, and being in touch with the other dimensions of ourselves can be deeply empowering for healing ourselves and fighting for social justice. For more on healing trauma and our connection the universe I heartily recommend the following books by feminist witches and heroes: Witchbody by Sabrina Scott and Witch by Lisa Lister.

Another thing – sobriety. (UGH). I know. I went a whole year without drinking not long ago, for mental health reasons, and I felt great. I fell off the wagon, due to thinking that it was going so well that it’s no big deal, I can handle it and I must be normal now… and lo and behold, soon fell into the chronic binge-drinking that marked my earlier decades. Alcohol is atrocious for mental health, I’m sorry to say, so I have recently bid it adieu again. If I was someone who could do stuff in moderation, then perhaps it would be ok for me, but I’m not, and it just makes me feel everything more intensely, which let’s face it is the last thing I bloomin’ need!

Lastly, creativity – where we started and where we end this interview. Creativity is a wonderful channel for all of our intense emotions, for all that pent-up energy that is suddenly available when you stop misusing substances and alcohol, for when you stop seeking escapism in self-destruction. However, creativity is much more than a way of coping – it is a way of being. We are not here to be consumers. We are here to make our own personal contribution, not just through buying things or by some arbitrary external measure of success but through finding our own authentic form of meaning. It is very empowering to use creativity to decide and express ourselves on our own terms – not capitalism’s terms, not academia’s terms, not your mum or dad’s or peers’ terms – yours.

Throughout everything – my emotional upheavals and crises from adolescence through to adulthood – creativity has been a stable bedrock. Sometimes I think I have no idea who I am, but then I look back, and it all makes sense. I grew up as a musician, a violinist since the age of three, discovered punk rock and riot grrrl when I was 16, and music and art are the things I always come back to replenish myself.

I channel everything through my songwriting, through drawings – even activism can be creative. Riot grrrl saved my life, learning violin saved my life, my goddamn Open Uni social science module saved my life, as did the many feminists and socialists whose words I’ve devoured for decades. It’s through social consciousness and wanting to empower and help other people that I’ve found out how to save myself, and continued to grow and humbly do my best to be of service and thrive in this world.

Muertos – Facebook Twitter Bandcamp // deannaavis.com

Photo credit: Stuart De Voil

Illumination 13 – Jasmine York

“I overheard a conversation about domestic abuse which was quite triggering for me. I left the room and wrote a poem in 3 minutes. It’s my favourite poem I’ve ever written.”

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Jasmine York, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name is Jasmine, I’m a graduate and I’m currently spending time adjusting to post-student life. I’m blogging quite frequently now, mainly about what it’s like to live with a physical chronic illness, but also touching on other things like mental health and relationships.

I’m driven by empathy. I openly write about my mental and physical health and the responses are so enlightening and empowering. The awareness I’m spreading allows others in my situation to feel less alone, but it’s so therapeutic for me to be able to vent and for someone to engage in that.

I’ve recently explored illustration and painting, mainly because I’ve realised I need more outlets for my emotions. I’m struggling, but trying nonetheless, to find multiple creative outlets that can be calming, diffusing but also engaging. Sometimes I want these outlets to be private and others public. I’m experimenting at the moment and I’m viewing this experimentation as an act of self-care

I’m struggling with depression and anxiety, and a psychiatrist I met with has flirted with the idea of saying I have a mild personality disorder. I suffer from intrusive thoughts very regularly, and often have battles with myself about self-harm. This is where my creative outlets come in. I need them to be as fulfilling, relentless and distracting as self-harm.

I feel emotions intensely and this is the main thing I struggle with. There is no grey area. Either I’m unequivocally happy or inconsolably sad, so when I switch from one mood to the other, which can happen quite rapidly, I end up undermining and invalidating both sensations.

This happens mainly when I’m happy. If I experience a rush of happiness – because that’s how it is, it’s never just contentment, it’s always a rush – then I talk myself down. I try to calm it to a manageable level of happiness in order to control the inevitable crash. It never works.

I need to do something productive every day. It’s easy for me to get into a cycle of depression, spend days in bed and function on auto-pilot. But this is dysfunctional and usually allows tasks and errands to pile up, and this only adds fuel to the fire. Making lists to keep a track of things that needs to be done helps a lot. Talking to myself and ensuring that I’m allowed to make mistakes is also very encouraging.

Things like blogging help me a lot, mainly because the support I receive from it can be encouraging. I also reflect on my behaviour a lot. It’s easy to stay in bed all day and tell myself, “it’s ok, this is self-care.” But sometimes it isn’t. This awareness of the subtlety of depression is very important to me, and challenging it helps my recovery.

Summoning this awareness can be very powerful, even if I don’t act on it. Just the realisation that I’m going through a tough time, or a relapse, empowers my mind, and shows me that I have some level of control.

Another thing that’s helpful for me is trying to understand the problem. What is making me upset today? Is it because I am fed up of being chronically ill? Is it because I have to live at home, depending on my family? These questions are loaded, but they are helpful on two levels.

Firstly, identifying the problem can be reassuring. This helps my anxiety – “it’s ok, brain, I’ve found the problem” sort of thing. The second level follows this. Once I’ve figured out what the matter is, I can then try to think of solutions. Maybe I won’t act on it immediately. Maybe I’ll understand what’s making me sad but I don’t have the strength to confront it that day. But one day I will.

 

My mental health definitely has an impact on my creative process. Sometimes when I’m overcome with emotion I can get on my laptop and furiously bash out a blog post about how I’m feeling. I overheard a conversation about domestic abuse which was quite triggering for me. I left the room and wrote a poem in 3 minutes. It’s my favourite poem I’ve ever written.

I think depression, depending on how you look at it, it either slips up or grants you access to some of your most suppressed emotions. I’ve said it before, depression can be an unstoppable force for creativity. It can be such a drive.

A lot of my anxiety is unexplained. I genuinely have days where I’m so on edge I can’t leave the house. I’ve missed shifts at work. I would get so close too, sometimes right to the front door, and then collapse. Sometimes it’s like a hidden trapdoor beneath me opens up and if I’m lucky, the magic door leads me into a long and lovely creative process. My friend often says “it’s a story” when something crazy/upsetting/challenging thing happens to me. It’s true. “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”

Don’t stop creating. Don’t listen to that voice in your head that tells you your creativity is invalid, or that you aren’t good enough. Harness what you’re battling, utilise that intense emotion and try to express that somehow.

It doesn’t have to be something you’re proud of, but whatever you create when your mental health is suffering, is an example of strength. Be proud of your creativity and what you can achieve. And most importantly, be creative for you. You deserve it.

gardenofjasmine.co.uk // @junoyork

How to help a friend who’s going through a shit time with their mental health

Compassion and understanding are key. Go forth, help your friends and don’t be a dick.   

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Unfortunately, mental health is still surrounded by a great deal of stigma and misinformation. Poor understanding of mental health problems leaves sufferers feeling isolated and too embarrassed or apprehensive to seek help.

Statistically, every single one of us will know someone who suffers from a mental illness. If you’ve got a friend who’s having a hard time with their mental health, it’s often difficult to know what the best thing to do is.

I’ve created this list in the hope that it could be helpful because I’ve been let down and abandoned by friends, bullied by a group of people I thought were my friends and I’ve felt completely alone with my mental illness. There are ways you can help a friend who’s struggling without putting your life on hold or inadvertently making things worse for them.

Listen to them

This really is the biggest thing you can do to help. Sit down with your friend, open your ears and listen. If they want to talk about how they feel, listen without judgement or blame. Mental health is not the fault of anyone. It doesn’t matter if they make what you consider to be ‘bad choices’ or they use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. No one brings a mental illness upon themselves.

Ask them what you can do for them. This is important because they might have specific things they need help with that you may not have considered. It’s often better to ask them if they want you to offer them advice, rather than coming out with unsolicited suggestions that they might already considered.

Preaching, rehashing mistakes you think they’ve made or saying ‘I told you so’ are all very unhelpful.

Don’t leave them alone unless that’s what they’ve specifically asked you to do 

This can be a tricky one, but as a general rule of thumb, if your friend feels abandoned or like you’re punishing them for struggling with their mental health, it’s going to make the situation indescribably worse. If you don’t know what to say, just listen. If you don’t know what to do, ask them. Feeling awkward or confused or scared is totally normal, but if you end up giving someone who’s suffering the cold shoulder because you feel a bit weird about the situation, it’s not going to help anyone.

Obviously, a lot depends on how much you can personally cope with and whether you feel that being there for your friend is negatively impacting on your own mental health. This is particularly pertinent if you also suffer from mental health issues.

Boundaries are important in any healthy relationship but you should be clear about these. For example, if you can’t take a day off work to look after a friend, tell them so, tell them why and arrange to see them in the evening once work has finished. You’re still being there for them, but you can’t be available 24/7.

Suggest low-risk activities.

Whether it’s watching a happy film (a comedy or a kids film is often a good choice), getting a takeaway delivered and eating together or sitting down with a cup of tea, ask them whether any of those options take their fancy.

It’s probably a good idea to avoid crowded places and alcohol. However, some people find it easier to open up about what’s been bothering them over a drink. It really depends on the situation, your friend’s mental health history and the severity of the crisis they’re having.

Make yourself available for errands and boring household tasks

One of the most helpful things when people are struggling is to offer to do a couple of chores for them. This can be washing up and wiping their kitchen surfaces, walking their dog or going to Tesco and picking up comfort food if they’re not feeling up to leaving the house. If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, the prospect of blitzing your home or doing a shop can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

I ended up hand-washing a bath full of my friend’s clothes because her washing machine was broken and she was having a really tough couple of days. Chores and responsibilities were piling up and seemed completely overwhelming, but because I was able to get the washing out of the way for her, the other tasks she had to complete seemed more manageable.

It always helps to have a living space that’s not completely cluttered or full of takeaway boxes – for many people, a messy environment just reminds them of how they’re not coping at full capacity and reflects their headspace.

Don’t gossip about their mental health or the situation they’re in to other friends 

It’s tempting to do this if you want advice or need support. Try asking your friend first. If they’re comfortable with you seeking advice from one other person, that’s great. But if they’re not, don’t tell your mates about what they’re going through.

No one wants to feel like they’re being talked about, and if you’re really struggling, your mind can go to dark places imagining what people are saying about you.

There are lots of great online and phone resources you can access if you’re caring for someone else, including Mind, YoungMinds, the 111 number, Rethink and the Samaritans.

If the situation becomes more serious and your friend is threatening to harm themselves, has self-harmed or is planning to commit suicide, ringing an ambulance, the NHS crisis team or the 111 number is often the only thing you can do.

Encourage them to seek professional help

Most of us (myself included) are absolutely not trained in mental health support. We’re just trying to do our best in the situation that presents itself. You should always encourage a friend to access mental health services, whether that’s making an appointment with their GP, making an emergency GP appointment, going to an out-of-hours GP service, attending a therapist, ringing the Samaritans or the crisis team or, in extreme situations, going to A&E.

Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’

If it was that easy, they already would be over it! Mental health problems don’t have quick fix solutions. You don’t decide to me mentally ill and you don’t decide to not be mentally ill anymore. Directives like ‘pull yourself together’ and ‘snap out of it’ are useless and damaging. They really won’t help, as much as you might want someone to change their mindset and stop feeling so bad.

Remember that they’re still the same person

There’s nothing weak or weird about someone who’s struggling with a mental health problem. Your friend hasn’t become a different person. You still share your good times, your memories, your in-jokes and your experiences. Treat them as your friend. Don’t ‘other’ them.

By bringing normality into this situation, you show the person that you still value them as the friend they are and that their mental health problems don’t make them an outcast or a stranger to you.

Compassion and understanding are key. Go forth, help your friends and don’t be a dick.

Illumination 12 – Carl Rosier Jones

“PTSD sufferers are normally strong-willed individuals who would never want to show any weakness. This is why military and front line emergency services professionals try to hide or ignore it for fear of ruining careers.”

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Carl Rosier Jones, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a serving Detective, and my creative side comes from my writing. Back in 2011, I was shot at 6 times whilst at work. I managed to bury it for 3 years, but since 2014 I have been diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

My drive to help others in a similar position has inspired me write about my experiences, and I’ve published a book called “The Caveman Principles” which explores how to understand and deal with stress.

PTSD is a condition that can catch anyone out, regardless of their profession or mental strength. As everyone is been brought up in a different way with different life experiences, the way we react to life events can vary greatly from person to person.

PTSD normally happens when someone has experienced a life-changing experience (normally it is a life-threatening one because it makes us think we are no longer safe). For me I was doing my job and making what I thought was a straightforward arrest but the man pulled out a gun and shot at me 6 times. I was not expecting that!

My PTSD is linked to this incident, and every time I see a gun used in the commission of a criminal offence, my PTSD asserts itself. Guns as a rule do not bother me, seeing them in the hands of military or police officers is fine, but add the criminal element and I go to pieces.

It might be good to explain how PTSD affects me (everyone has slightly different ways symptoms). When my PTSD is triggered (even writing this is causing me some discomfort), it hits me in the chest first. It starts like an ice cold drop then it quickly spreads and spreads, and once I feel this there is nothing I can do.

I lose concentration, stumbling over words and unable to focus. I’m forgetful and unable to hold a complex conversation. My stomach starts churning, getting more and more upset and very loud. The shakes come in like waves, gentle tremors until my hands need to be sat on. These are just some of the obvious physical ones, but no one can see the things going on in the mind. I have traumatic flashbacks to the (or an associated) incident. I get a feeling of not being in my own body and of numbness.

All of this is exhausting and after an attack, I’m wiped out and have nothing left in the tank. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my alcohol consumption increase, I’ve had no interest in looking after myself, with no control of any food intake and no interest in personal fitness.

Most of the time sufferers don’t want to own up to our condition, and we get deluded about what’s happening to our bodies and minds. Ignoring the issue means that we don’t have to deal with the trauma, and that’s a very human response – to hope that something will go away if we ignore it.

I’d been like a zombie, ignoring the issue and believing there was nothing wrong. PTSD sufferers are normally strong-willed individuals who would never want to show any weakness. This is why military and front line emergency services professionals try to hide or ignore it for fear of ruining careers.

After a few emotional breakdowns I had to take action, admit to myself that I was not ‘alright’ and tell people about it. That was the scary part, managers saying: “I don’t get it” helped like a punch in the gut. These first few steps were the hardest and most upsetting.

I needed to understand the condition so I looked, researched and trained in a few therapies; CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) and a few others, but in my opinion they were a ‘one size fits all’ solution and did not work for me.

With my PTSD, if I try to control everything, it only makes the condition worse. I had to make myself relax about it, accept help and take a less operational role so I could get my mind back. I tried counselling but everyone wanted to use CBT, and I’d already found out that it didn’t work for me. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and re-living techniques all failed as well.

I’m still working through things but I know now that I need to take time for myself and try to avoid my triggers. As a Detective it can be hard, but who said life was easy?

There are good days where I can focus and write and others when all I want to do is ‘other’ things. The ability to lose yourself in doing nothing for an entire day is part of the condition.

Because of the person I am, everything that I’ve learnt and experienced I want to use to help others. I wanted to find a way to explain and guide people when they needed it. I knew from my own experience what I needed and when I couldn’t find it. So I decided to plug the gap, by writing my own book to help others. The Caveman Principles are simple, straightforward and use characters and metaphors to get the message over, without it being preachy or heavy. Reading it shouldn’t be a chore, and I’ve purposely included humour and left out any ‘big words’.

I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to fit in writing my book and running a personal business around my work, by working shifts and only accepting commitments for my business when I’m free. If I’m honest, without writing the book and being booked to speak at seminars and events, I don’t think I’d be as far along the road to recovery as I am.

Speaking is my biggest passion and being able to tell my story, letting people know that PTSD and trauma aren’t so bad and asking them to accept it as part of everyday life is really rewarding. I introduce my Caveman Principles and market myself as the Caveman Speaker, which brings a smile to everyone’s face and ensures that they don’t forget me or my message.

Don’t fight it and never ignore it. If you do managed to accept PTSD, make sure that you can stand in the mirror, looking at yourself and see a smile.

carlrosierjones.com // Facebook author page // Amazon

Illumination 10 – Sophie Walker

“Instead of asking ‘what is wrong with me?’ a more appropriate question is ‘what’s happened to me?’ When you understand this difference then healing becomes a possibility.”

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Sophie Walker, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m Sophie Walker and work as an artist and mindful creativity practitioner. I started my business Attentive Art after I experienced post natal depression having relocated from one side of the country to the other five weeks before my second child was born.

In order to understand what was going on, I studied a course in psychology and mental health, followed by a course in mindfulness. I started making art again (I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years) and applied some mindfulness techniques which had great results on and off the canvas. I’m now training to be a certified coach in creative mindfulness.

I have to say I’m okay these days. I have off days and a spot of anxiety now and then but nothing like what I used to. I don’t know where the boundaries between mental health and mental illness lie sometimes. Especially in children. I experienced eating disorders and anxiety before I was old enough to go to school.

Do certain behaviours indicate mental illness if they’re simply coping mechanisms to facilitate feeling mentally better? I had ongoing issues with depression and the behavioural patterns that tend to come with it, but I realised I was asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking ‘what is wrong with me?’ a more appropriate question is ‘what’s happened to me?’ When you understand this difference then healing becomes a possibility because we can stop blaming ourselves for things that probably were never our fault in the first place.

I write when I feel like it. I try to operate from a place of ‘how do I feel?’ rather than ‘what should I be doing?’ or ‘I have too much to do’ when really I can choose how much I have to do. So I apply a mindful ‘noticing’ of how I feel and what I’m doing. I make time each week for painting, drawing etc.

054-Sophie-Walker

I also go out for walks and do yoga and swim when I can. I find it hard to slow down and try to notice when I need a break and at least stop and do something different.

Does mental health inform my creative process? I think in my case the two are combined. I am of the belief that any creativity is a form of therapy and it is highly necessary for everyone to have a creative outlet. It grounds me and calms me down.

I also have a tendency to think that everything I make or paint or whatever has to somehow be something I can sell. I only realised this quite recently (noticing) and now aim to enjoy the process for what it is.

Listen to yourself and trust yourself. Don’t listen to any thoughts about not being good or experienced enough. Experiment, find what you enjoy and do more of it while keeping on experimenting. Never compare yourself to others. It won’t help you to enjoy your creativity. Stop, look at what you’ve made. Smile.

theattentiveartist.com // facebook.com/groups/AttentiveArt

Illumination 09 – Naomi Joseph

“My mental health doesn’t just impact my creative process, it affects my attitude to the industry as a whole – particularly with performing. There’s so much pressure to look perfect. “

‘Illumination’ is a brand new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their mental health struggles may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Naomi Joseph, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name is Naomi Joseph and I’m a writer, performer and spoken word artist. I also provide freelance arts admin and digital marketing support. My work primarily explores the relationship between individual identity and cultural belonging. I’m also a fierce advocate for breaking down barriers regarding mental health.

I strive to look after my mental health, mainly because I’ve struggled to during previous personal experiences (bereavement to name one). It’s been a struggle to maintain self-care at times, and I guess it’s not until I had these experiences and sought help that I really realised and valued the importance of looking after my mental and physical health.

I also come from a family who – loving and as supportive as they are – see seeking help as the very last resort. I think that this makes me fight harder to talk about mental health. I think it’s dangerous to wait for a moment of crisis before we pay attention to our mental health and wellbeing.

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I’ve been through counselling, and it’s really helped me.

One of the benefits of being freelance means that I can look after my mental health at my own pace, because I am working at my own pace. I realise this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone (it isn’t always the case for me), so I have different measures in place depending on whether I am working from home or located elsewhere e.g. based in an office or in rehearsals.

Everyday Measures:

  • When I get up and when I go to bed I try and think of one thing I am grateful for. It helps me keep things in perspective.
  • If I wake up with particular anxieties or worries, I write them down to get them out. Sometimes I revisit them at the end of the day, so I can see the progress I have made because everything is always worse in your imagination.
  • At the end of my working day I try and write an achievements list – every single step can be an achievement – there’s no hierarchy, no pressure – it might include ‘did a load of washing’ or ‘edited an article’.
  • I ensure I take my full lunch break regardless of whether I’m working from home or I’m located elsewhere.

Measures for when I’m Working from Home:

I try to keep to a routine. For example, I keep office hours – it’s easy to get caught up in working all the time because your workspace and home space are the same space (!) and when you work from home people assume you’re accessible all the time. Keeping working hours helps me maintain a balance and feel less overwhelmed.

I also make sure that I get out – working from home can be isolating and lonely so I either find public spaces with free wifi, go for a walk or run a minor errand. I’m also fortunate that I have other freelance buddies and we sometimes buddy up together and have ‘office’ days – it’s motivating and sociable and makes work less overwhelming.

Measures when I’m location-based:

  • I always take my full lunch break – whether working from home or not
  • Leading up to production week/rehearsals I food prep – it saves any added worry or stress to what is usually a stressful time in the creative process!
  • Being honest and communicating with those I’m working with if I’m struggling – I find that particularly in theatre in rehearsal rooms we seem to be more open about talking about our struggles.
  • I maintain my support system around me and communicate as I go by keeping in touch with family and friends with how I’m feeling, talking to colleagues I trust etc
  • I also just check in with myself throughout the day – I have a little conversation with myself – ‘how am I feeling?’ It stops me from accidentally neglecting my self-care which can be easy to do when you’re working with lots of people creatively.

Sometimes my mental health influences the creative process. Sometimes I write for catharsis, without the intention to share it publicly, especially if it’s something personal that I haven’t yet processed for myself. Sometimes it turns into something more, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t believe in exploiting myself to create authentic art – that’s dangerous and unsafe, not to mention wanky.

If I’m writing from a personal place (but for a creative purpose) I try to address what I am/not comfortable with exploring and why (i.e. I don’t want to close myself off but again, I don’t believe in making myself vulnerable unsafely).

For instance, my solo show Motherland explores cultural identity, it’s a very personal piece but it’s also darkly comical and heartwarming. However, during the very early writing stages I set up boundaries for myself because there were some aspects of my personal life that I wasn’t ready to share or hadn’t fully processed privately. As time has gone on, I’ve been able to push myself creatively with this project and reach a point where I could approach it as writer/actor, but that’s only because I made sure to take care of myself during the early stages.

My mental health doesn’t just impact my creative process, it affects my attitude to the industry as a whole – particularly with performing. There’s so much pressure to look perfect. On the whole, this is just really dangerous. At the times in my life where I’ve struggled, I didn’t really taking care of myself and I didn’t look after my physical health as much as I should have. Even though I can now say I am in a much better space and have moved on, I still feel guilt or see the effects for myself, even if no one else can.

My mental health affects my attitude to the performing aspect because I just can’t afford to take on board those superficial, external pressures of looking perfect – it would be detrimental to my self-care. I treat myself as a human first of all, rather than some sort of superstar creative – and that’s my attitude to the creative process. When I know I’m continuing self-development work and looking after myself, I feel good in myself and that’s all that matters – and what’s more, that shows.

I seek out opportunities to discuss mental health creatively. I’ve always been interested in the power of creativity (be it performance or writing) to communicate and reach out to people so I have purposely sought opportunities to explore and utilise this. I most recently collaborated with We Co Produce and performed for West London Mental Health Trust. I feel really humbled to have had the opportunity to share my experiences and my work directly with organisations and service users. I would love to continue to work creatively in this aspect.

Mental wellbeing comes first. Always. Self-care and personal development should be viewed as a continuous process. I know people who have bought into the romanticised artsy lifestyle – forsaking food for travel money for auditions or constantly dieting to stay thin etc. – nothing is worth sacrificing your health.

Find your allies – both inside and outside of your industry. Family, friends, professional help. The stronger your support system, the easier it will be to manage on days when you do have a wobble. Also, if you do create personal work, it’s important to share how you’re feeling with your collaborators.

With regards to the work you create, don’t feel pressured to share more than you are comfortable with. It doesn’t make you more or less of an artist depending on how much you are willing to reveal about yourself. (Although it might be worth exploring why you are setting up boundaries – e.g. is it because you would rather some things stay private or have you personally not yet dealt with these issues?)

Redefine success for yourself. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to others in your industry, you will always come out feeling like a failure. It’s not healthy and it’s also not true! You are cultivating a career for yourself, not other people.

Work at a speed that lets you to look after your mental health – sometimes the creative industries doesn’t always allow you this, but it’s vital. The sacrifices you’re willing to make might not be as some others. If that means turning down a commission because you know you don’t have the time or you don’t want to participate in a workshop about a particular topic because it might be triggering – that’s totally ok.

Have a life outside of your creative work. It helps put things into perspective and give you balance.

Interrupted (A Work in Progress) // @i_am_naomij