“The creative world is turbulent”: designers’ stories of mental health

As World Mental Health Day takes place this week, we speak to designers, freelance creatives and illustrators about their experiences of mental illness or issues, and ask for their advice on how best to cope and help others.

Ben O’Brien, aka Ben the Illustrator, freelance illustrator

“I’ve had problems with depression since I was in school – I had to see a school counsellor, I never quite understood it and the last thing I could do (as a grungy teenager in the early 1990s) was talk about it with friends or family.

Almost 30 years on and things have changed a lot, for me and for mental health awareness. It’s not a taboo anymore, depression and anxiety are becoming understood and considered respectfully.

Having been a freelance illustrator for most of my working life, I have learnt to manage work around my mental health (or vice versa!). Freelancing can be very tough, with periods of instability and clients paying late, and all these things can contribute to stress and mental health problems.

I still have bad days, but I try to use my working day considerately. Firstly, I can close the door and have time to myself if I need it, to give myself space or take time out of the studio. Also I find my two main stages of illustrating very therapeutic, drawing on paper and vectoring my colourful artwork. I find the vectoring to be almost meditative – I can do it for hours and it can help to distract me from negative thoughts and clear my mind.

I recommend that if someone finds a repetitive process that appears to clear the mind, maybe it’s painting, animating, or hand-drawing type, then remember that process, and consider it to be an exercise that can aid you and even help you get some work done in the process.”

Ben Tallon, freelance illustrator

“I believe mental health issues in their many shades of grey are a part of the human condition. There’s a dangerous notion of ‘someone has it worse than me’ and while perspective can be healthy, mental health issues do not manifest only as breakdowns, depression or suicide.

I haven’t suffered depression, but almost daily, I wrestle with big questions, the state of the world and the pace of modern life. It’s the downside to an introspective mind that enables me to earn my living in the creative industries.

This is common in the arts. The job gives me both unimaginable thrills, purpose, friendships and encounters with the most fascinating people in the world, but it also comes with solitude, and the pressure to make it happen on my own with no sick days. Some days that can be a heavy load.

It’s crucial to be sympathetic to your personality and try to structure your working life – location, role and hours worked, for example – in a way that makes you feel energised, inspired and as far away from over-thinking and lethargy or burnout as possible. I encourage everyone to lead less with the idea of success and more with feeling.”

Listen to Ben Tallon’s podcast on mental health here.

Niki Groom, aka Miss Magpie, freelance fashion, beauty and lifestyle illustrator. Photo © Remco Merbis.

“I’m very fortunate that I haven’t suffered from any serious mental health issues. However, 2017 was a really tough year for me financially, and now I’m on the other side of it I can see that it caused me a constant low level of stress which certainly impacted on my work. The pressure to keep being creative when money was all I could really think about was very tough. One month I only invoiced £300 while my mortgage at the time was £900 and things soon spiralled. The struggle of getting overdue payments from clients didn’t help either.

Now I’m on the other side of it I’m putting things in place to help for when things slow down again. I’ve seen a financial advisor and am putting a small amount away each month while things are good. I’ve also started running when things are difficult, this really helps to clear my head. Sometimes stepping away from the easel and putting one foot in front of the other results in the best ideas.”

Rozian Azaden, digital designer, Compare My Move

“I’m a digital designer who has suffered with anxiety and depression since around the age of 16. I can’t say that being a designer has caused my mental health issues, but it has at times certainly inflamed them.

The creative world is turbulent, and I’ve been made redundant twice, before the age of 25. The second redundancy led to a breakdown, resulting in time off sick. I’ve also left a role in the past because the environment essentially made my mental health unbearable to cope with. I was told it was my mental health that was the issue, not the environment.

I’ve tried therapy over the years and been on and off medication – which surprisingly helped the most, after the side effects died down!

My biggest piece of advice is to know that you’re not alone, and even in the darkest of moments, know that it’s not you who’s the ‘problem’. Mental health is not your fault. Seek comfort in the people you love, and don’t be scared to let them help you.

There’s no magic cure for all, everyone’s different, but just remember to be kind and patient with yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all.”

Ryan Oldfield, freelance graphic designer and founder at Design Utopia

“I’ve suffered with social anxiety all my life, but I’ve only properly known what I’ve been suffering with for the past five years. It’s been tough but with the help of family, friends, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and my new-found mountain-biking gang, it’s been getting better slowly and I’m able to do more things.

The only part of my job that has contributed to my social anxiety is the fact that I’m self-employed and work from home alone, so going out and meeting people hasn’t been essential. Most of my clients are contactable via email or phone so I have only a few meetings a year, though this is on the rise now.

Once I realised I had social anxiety I was glad I knew what it was but it was hard to know how to make my life easier. The best thing for me was having my family and wife’s support. They helped me deal with it by advising me to take things slow and if at any point I didn’t like something, to stop what I was doing and come home.

This means I can push myself while knowing that everyone around me was okay with me not pushing myself if I didn’t feel great. I don’t think I will ever become anxiety-free but I try to do my best while living with it.

I would tell others to seek help from CBT and talk to family and friends, because, from my experience, most will understand, and once you realise that, it’s such a relief.”

Chris Skelton, director, Thompson Brand Partners

“To this day I’ve been fortunate enough not to have struggled with my own mental health. But I do have plenty of experience living and working with family, friends and colleagues who haven’t been so lucky. Stress, anxiety, panic, bereavement and depression have all played a part in my life.

Thompson Brand Partners has recently worked on several mental health initiatives – in particular websites like MindMate for NHS Leeds clinical commissioning group (CCG) and Mental Health at Work by Mind and the Royal Foundation – which have brought these issues into our studio and encouraged us to talk openly, whether we liked it or not.

Even while working on these projects, I’m not afraid to say it has been very difficult to address issues that some of my colleagues have been facing in a proactive way. It’s not surprising that businesses worldwide are struggling with tackling and overcoming similar problems.

The design industry has a reputation for creating high-workload, high-stress environments. Workload can be managed, but stress will always be there with looming deadlines, inter-studio competition and high client expectations, so awareness and conversation are everything, because only if people take notice of a colleague in need can something be done about it. And only if it’s talked about can we reduce stigma and empower people to see it in themselves, then take action, before it’s too late.

My advice would be to talk openly about all types of mental health, good or bad. We all have problems, just to varying degrees. It needs industry leaders and business owners to make that change and set an example for others. Do a wellness action plan, whether you’re unwell or not and discuss it. Mental health issues can be invisible, so train someone to be a mental health first aider or a mental health champion and have a physical presence in the workplace to spot the signs and encourage conversation.”

Are you a designer or creative who has experienced mental health problems or concerns? Get in touch at sarah.dawood@centaurmedia.com.

If you are experiencing mental health problems and want to talk to someone, you can contact several charities, including Mind here and the Samaritans here.

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