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

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.