Internationally acclaimed author Robert Muchamore reached incredible heights in his career, but in parallel, his mental health hit an all-time low. Here, he candidly opens up about his own story of depression, psychiatric hospitals, group therapy, and isolation at the top
If you’ve got a teenager in the family, or were a young adult growing up between the mid-noughties and now, chances are you’ve heard of Robert Muchamore. Selling more than 14 million books in 24 languages, he’s the man behind the CHERUB and Henderson’s Boys series, and the novel Rock War.
A prolific writer from a humble background, Robert was inspired to create his CHERUB (Charles Henderson’s Espionage Research Unit B) series when his nephew couldn’t find anything to read. The rest, as they say, is history.
Behind the glossy covers and seven-figure book deals, Robert’s journey has been more turbulent than readers may know.
“At the beginning of 2012, I’d just turned 40 and was struck by depression for the first time,” Robert says. “Over the months that followed, it totally engulfed me.
“Initially I had a stereotypically male reaction, seeing the fight against depression as a military campaign. I read that exercise helped, so I got a personal trainer.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a private therapist. When my symptoms became more severe, the therapist introduced me to a psychiatrist, who began by prescribing me antidepressants, before adding other medications.
“By late summer, I had become frustrated that I was doing everything ‘right,’ while my condition deteriorated. I was convinced the unbearable depression would last as long as I did, and that the only way to stop it was to kill myself.”
Worried friends and family convinced Robert to check into a private psychiatric hospital.
“I didn’t want to go into hospital because it meant total submission to my illness. But with hindsight, I see that entering a different setting jolted me out of harmful thought patterns, speeded my recovery, and possibly even saved my life.”
As part of his stay, Robert undertook group therapy, which can offer a support network, and the opportunity to speak to others with similar experiences. But, for Robert, it also had its downsides.
“Group therapy was beneficial, but it could be hard. It’s an experience that depends on the successful interaction between the whole group. Some personalities would dominate a session, some patients could be aggressive and intimidating. The most common problem was that people just didn’t feel like talking.
“The biggest lesson I got from group therapy was an understanding of how depression distorts your thought processes. After hearing several depressed patients talk through their problems, I started to recognise patterns of negative thoughts and behaviours, and increasingly found them absurd.”
For Robert, this was a breakthrough moment.
“Once I saw how depression works, it seemed less like something that controlled me, and more like an external force that I could constantly challenge.”
A crucial stage in my recovery was the point where I’d finally been honest with all the important people in my life
In the lead-up to his stay in hospital, Robert wrote 20 books in 10 years, spending weeks away from home during tours and events. Soon, it took its toll.
“Success can be addictive, and I think succeeding in one area of my life made it very unbalanced.
“I was so engulfed in work, that I didn’t have any serious relationships. I let close friends drift away. As the excitement of being a successful author turned into another year, another book, another tour, I realised that I had distanced myself from friends and family in the process.”
Robert found his monetary success made it difficult for him to admit he was suffering. Money acted as not only an underlying theme in Robert’s recovery, but has gone on to influence his writing, particularly in his latest novel, Arctic Zoo.
“Some of the patients in Arctic Zoo suffer from financial pressures in the same way as many of the people I was in hospital with; some were super-wealthy, but others had ordinary jobs and private health cover that restricted them to just 14 or 28 days in hospital. One set of desperate parents remortgaged their home to pay for private treatment for their suicidal daughter, because they felt it was their only hope of keeping her alive.
“I was lucky I could afford the best treatment available, and regard it as money well spent. But if you look at the bigger picture, NHS statistics suggest 1.5 million people experience depression at any one time. Everyone with a mental health problem deserves better treatment, but there’s no cheap fix.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Robert what advice he would share with anyone experiencing mental ill-health.
“I’m reluctant to give advice, because once my friends found out I was depressed it flooded in from all directions. CBT, NLP, yoga, Pilates, swimming, meditation. My local Cancer Research shop ended up with a half-metre stack of books when I finally turfed them all out.
“The one thing I will say is that a crucial stage in my recovery was the point where I’d finally been honest with all the important people in my life. Being ashamed of depression, and constantly lying about how I was really feeling, became a huge burden.
“Most people I told were great, a few were a bit rubbish, but being able to walk into any situation and be honest was a massive relief.”
Robert’s latest novel was one that took him years to pin down. As we wrap things up, he shares his thoughts on what he hopes readers will take away from it.
“Most of us experience a narrow view of the world. On the news, you’ll see the same few stories told from an Anglo-American perspective, while social media places us in a comfort zone that reinforces our existing opinions.
“I don’t like to think of my books as having a single message, but I do hope that anyone who reads Arctic Zoo will come away thinking about the world in a different way. Whether it’s mental health issues, political corruption, or protest movements.”
Arctic Zoo by Robert Muchamore is out now (Hot Key Books, £12.99)