Mental health interview

Mental health interview

Samantha Harvey recently sent me a great set of interview questions for her project on mental health. She kindly agreed that I could share my answers here as well, so here they are.

What is your understanding of the phrase ‘mental health/wellbeing’?

For me that would be the state where life doesn’t feel like a struggle, where we feel generally able to cope with things that happen, and to treat ourselves relatively kindly. Often ‘mental health’ is seen as in a binary with ‘mental illness’: either we are mentally healthy, or we are mentally ill, and those are seen as relatively fixed states. For me it’s more of a continuum that all of us go up and down over the course of our lives.

What possessed you too create your zine ‘Staying with our Feelings’ and what reactions and feedback did you receive from consumers? (Ps. I love the layout and sketches!)

I’m so glad you liked it! As with most of my work it was inspired by my own struggles, and what I’ve found works for me, and for the people I work with. I was struck that lots of different approaches to mental health include this same idea that it’s useful to stay with our feelings. However, a lot of folks I talk with don’t really know what that means. So I decided to make a simple zine to explain it, and to give some suggestions about some of the different ways of doing it.

The feedback has been really positive! A lot of people say the zine is a lot more accessible to young people, or neurodiverse people, for example, than a book or even a written website. The mix of images and words can make it both more engaging and easier to understand.

Which emotion from your experience and understanding do you feel is becoming most prevalent in modern day society and why?

I would have to go with self-criticism – is that an emotion?! – anyway the whole set of shame type feelings where you feel bad about yourself and like you’re a terrible person, or there’s something wrong with you, or you’re nowhere near as good or worthwhile as everyone else. It’s very linked to the feeling of depression, as well as anxiety that people might ‘find you out’. This is highly prevalent in modern society because consumer culture is based on making us feel bad about things so that we’ll buy products which we’re sold on the basis that they will make us happier, more attractive, more successful, or whatever. Also it’s pretty handy for those in power if we’re all so busy worrying about ourselves that we don’t get politically involved, or act against the cultural messages or structural inequalities that hurt us.

You stated in your Ladybeard article ‘ Depression and Anxiety is a sane response to an insane world’ do you believe these illnesses are a modern day construct and what do you see for the future of our generations in terms of emotion?

I think this is even more clear now than when I wrote that article! With everything that is going on post-Brexit and post-Trump, depression and anxiety could be seen as a pretty sane response. However I would always say that our experiences are ‘biopsychosocial‘. It’s not that social conditions alone ’cause’ mental illness, but rather they weave together in a complex way with our bodies and brains (our biology) and our unique life experiences (our psychology) to result in our own particular patterns when it comes to our mood and how we tend to react to things.

My hope for the future – whether it is realistic or not – is that a key emotional state will be kindness, or compassion, because that’s what we desperately need in order to counter our self-criticism, and the tendency to judge others, or treat them as disposable.

Why do you think emotion and our mental health is such a taboo subject?

We’re taught to feel a lot of shame about mental health difficulties. Also, we’re taught that some emotions and ‘positive’ and others are ‘negative’ and we should really only feel the ‘positive’ ones, otherwise we’re a failure at life. The Pixar movie Inside Out is one of the most profound things I’ve seen about how actually we need all of our emotions in order to have good mental health. Trying to only feel joy, and no sadness, anger or fear, for example, is paradoxically one of the main things that tips us into depression.

I want to understand how we can learn to communicate our feelings more and cope with our mental health better. Therefore, can we use our physical strength to help our mental health. Do you feel there is a correlation between the two, if so, how and why?

Oh absolutely the two are connected. In the West we’ve separated the body and mind for a long time now, but actually they can’t be separated at all. We’re embodied beings. So one of the most helpful things we can do to stay with our feelings is to learn to locate them in our bodily sensations. Similarly, doing things where we feel that great sense of being in our bodies often has a profound impact on our mood. People often feel that when they are moving, listening to music, or being in nature, for example. Again the cultural message that our bodies are something to be ‘perfected’ and ‘beautified’ in order to fit some conventional ideal of what is attractive goes completely against this embodied approach!

From my research I have been focusing on ‘The Emotional Economy’, which discusses how we are feeling more feelings than ever before and trying to find new ways to express ourselves. I feel there is a revolution taking place around normalising mental health outside the medical arena and in the creative space, would you agree?

I think to some extent yes there is much more information and understanding about mental health than there was when I – or my parents – were growing up, for example. But the problem is that we still tend to ‘individualise’ mental health problems – seeing them as something that some people have because of their faulty brains, or faulty thinking – rather than recognising just how tied they are to the wider culture, and to material conditions like poverty, homelessness, and experiencing discrimination, for example.

Furthermore, through what form of creativity (for example art, performance, film) would you say this is most prominent?

Oo hard to say. I’m a big fan of comics, and I think that the large number of mental health web-comics and graphic memoirs has been hugely helpful in capturing diverse experiences of mental health struggles, and normalising them. I worked with Caroline Walters and Joseph de Lappe to make 4 issues of Asylum magazine about this if you’re interested in finding out more.

My big idea is encouraging Generation Y, also known as the IPOD generation (Insecure, Pressurised Over-taxed and Debt-ridden) to go outdoors and do something creative as a means to help express their mental-self more positively. Do you agree and do you see this working?

Absolutely I think both those things are incredibly helpful when it comes mental health – although I’d be wary of advocating them for everyone because different things work for different people, and at different times in their lives.

The IPOD thing is interesting because if those are the key problems (and I think they probably are) then I’d be focused on what we can do to give this generation more security, less pressure, less tax, and less debt. Hence the answer would be political and social reform rather than anything else. So yes get outdoors (on a march) and do something creative (write to your MP, make a placard) 😉

I think Audre Lorde’s famous quote also comes in here ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ Even if we locate the causes of much of our suffering in wider society, it’s still vital to do forms of self-care in order that we have the energy to resist and protest. For me getting outdoors and being creative are certainly two essential forms of self-care.

If you could describe your mind as a biscuit, what would it be and why?

A Florentine coz it’s pretty nutty 😉

If you could describe your mind as a colour palette, what would it look like and why?

Going back to Inside Out I would hope it’d look like a rainbow, indicating that I was okay with being in all of the different emotional states. It’s probably a lifelong process to get there though.


Find out more

My zine on social mindfulness covers these ideas in more detail.

My other blog posts on mental health include:

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).