It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and other lies), published this autumn, is hope, experience and understanding all wrapped up in a beautiful, blue-hued book.
As the end of the year approaches, curator and major contributor Scarlett Curtis shares her hopes for those who read it, and for the future of mental health and illness conversations in 2020 and beyond...
After a particularly tough week, feeling listless on a long train journey, I dig the new anthology curated by Scarlett Curtis, It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and other lies), out of my bag and open a random page. A quote from editor and model Jamie Windust leaps out at me. “We are all allowed to fail and make mistakes. We are, at the end of the day, only human.”
Amen to that.
This is one of many times I’ve dipped into Blue ahead of my chat with Scarlett. Each time, I read three or four offerings that have led me to think about different experiences or perspectives on mental health, and to reconsider my own.
“The thing that I love the most about the book is that hopefully whatever you’ve been through there will be something in there that speaks to you,” Scarlett shares with me.
“What’s amazing is that everyone has a different piece that speaks to them – it’s not like there’s one piece that jumps out. Everyone finds something in a different essay, and that’s been making me very happy.”
There are a huge amount of personal experiences to choose from – including one of my favourites from Professor Tanya Byron (‘Fabulous and F*cked Up’), Alastair Campbell, acclaimed writer Candice Carty Williams, mental health advocates Jonny Benjamin, Bryony Gordon, Poorna Bell, and singer Sam Smith, to name but a few.
Each of the six chapters start with a piece by Scarlett, and she’s deeply generous in sharing the very low lows she’s encountered throughout her life to date, as well as giving hope to readers who might be in the middle of a similar episode themselves.
Scarlett was told that she was “crazy” at the age of 17, and encountered panic attacks that floored her, and left her unable to leave her home for the majority of the next two years. Diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD, Scarlett has worked hard to understand her mental illness, with therapists, medication, and by reading and developing her knowledge around mental illness.
As a teenager, however, she recalls the sadness she felt initially when day-to-day activities felt beyond her. “I was 19 and trying to work on a project with my friend, and I realised I couldn’t get out of bed.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh wow, this might be the rest of my life. I might never be able to participate in society in the way I thought I was going to.’ And actually, that’s OK. My life will be a different kind of life.
“We’re obviously all told when we’re younger ‘you can be anything you want’ and ‘your options are limitless’, but as a teenager, I felt very limited. It took a lot for me to accept that, and understand I could still have an alright life, and that I was probably always going to have some of these issues.”
Personal experiences like these, make her the perfect curator of this book, in addition to her vast writing experience. Having previously curated and contributed to Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies), writing for a plethora of publications including the Sunday Times, blogging, podcasting, and activism with a collective she co-founded, called The Pink Protest.
This latest book is a piece of activism in its own right, sharing in-depth how it feels to live with mental illness. It also serves to promote understanding about mental illness in people who don’t have first-hand experience of living with them.
I think there are a lot of positives around mental health and illness, a lot more conversations happening
“A lot of the feedback that I’ve been getting is from people who don’t have mental health challenges. They say: ‘I’ve never been through mental illness, but it’s helped me understand more.’”
And the act of curating and compiling the essays also deepened Scarlett’s own knowledge.
“I’ve been in therapy and a mental health advocate for so many years, I almost thought that I knew everything – but there’s so much that I didn’t know.
“I think the main thing that really jumped out at me and was hammered home by putting this book together was the male experience of mental health – how every single man in the book talks about toxic masculinity and pride and feeling so ashamed to open up. I’d always sort of theoretically understood that, but I don’t think I ever fully understood it until reading those essays.”
Continuing to develop her own knowledge around mental health, and campaigning for better understanding and support, is high on Scarlett’s agenda for 2020. She’s all too aware from her personal experience the impact that shame and stigma can have on reaching out for support.
“When you look at some of the stats, I think it takes a young person on average 10 years to find appropriate treatment for their mental health, which is so ridiculous and just shouldn’t be the case,” she says.
“And I keep saying, books like this actually shouldn’t even have to exist. The fact that this is for some people their primary source of support and help, if it was a physical illness, that would never be the case. You’d never say to someone with cancer, ‘Oh, go out and buy this book.’ I think that’s something that I really want to be looking into more.”
When it comes to offering more support and information, the media plays a pivotal role and, based on recent stories, it seems there’s a long way to go. It’s been a tough couple of weeks for a number of reasons: dismissals around the impact of death threats and trolling of female MPs; sensationalism around suspected suicide; and the constant belittling of ‘a snowflake generation’ on daytime TV.
“I think there are a lot of positives around mental health and illness, a lot more conversations happening,” Scarlett says. “But actually treatment and care and funding isn’t getting much better. And I think when you have people like Piers Morgan going on national TV, and dismissing someone like Greta Thunberg because of her mental health, it’s taking us back so many steps.
“When I was Greta’s age, I felt like my mental illness meant I wouldn’t ever be able to work, and would never be taken seriously. And honestly, if I’d seen him saying that when I was 15 years old, it would have broken me – it would have hurt so much.
“When you’re talking about mental health,” Scarlett continues, “You have to think about the people around the country that are listening to that and using it for their own self-hatred, and to fuel their own belief that their mental illness is something to be ashamed of.
“Anyone who’s ever had a mental illness will know, you already feel so much shame, you feel so much fear that you’re not going to be understood. You feel so much fear that you’re going to be dismissed by society.”
However, with every negative reaction and dismissal around mental health in the media, there is a counter reaction, and thousands upon thousands of people working to make positive change. The success of It’s Not OK to Be Blue (and other lies), the availability of support networks such as the free 24/7 textline provided by Shout, the presence of campaigns including Where’s Your Head At? and Every Mind Matters, are all working to make a difference and drown out the voices that can fuel shame and stigma.
Because it is OK to be blue, it’s OK to be vulnerable, it’s OK to shout, and it’s OK to ask for help.
‘It’s Not OK To Feel Blue (and other lies’) (Penguin, £14.99) is curated by Scarlett Curtis and available now. For every book sale, 10% of the RRP will be donated to the charity Shout, which is a 24/7 crisis text service. Anyone can text 85258 to be connected to a trained crisis volunteer who will chat by text.