As part of our in-depth look at mental illness among illustrators, Ben O'Brien aka Ben the Illustrator opens up about his experience with depression.
Why did you decide to conduct the Illustrators Survey?
"I wanted to get a broader idea of how our community was feeling about the key issues, or even find out what the key issues are. One statistic to come out of the survey is that 79 percent of respondents said they feel they have anxieties or confidence issues that affect their careers."
Were you surprised by this?
"I was very surprised, I knew it was there, I have had my own experiences, and I have spoken to friends who have too, but I don't think anyone could have guessed that so many of us, such a big majority, have all faced mental health issues in one way or another. I think it surprised everyone, fellow freelancers, the design press, students, universities, publishers, it really sparked the conversation and got people opening up to the problem."
Why do you think it may be common for creatives to experience mental health?
"I don't know the science, but creative people have often been more sensitive to such issues, or more aware of them in ourselves. We try to express ourselves everyday, to keep it real and put ourselves out there, our feelings are often-one-and-the-same as the work we create. Freelance life can also be very stressful, opting for a potentially unstable career, perhaps going through spells with little work, or clients paying late or under budget, this can be very damaging to our lives and can have a lasting effect.
"Self-doubt can also be a cause, being afraid what might be said about our work in the public realm, by our peers or potential clients or comparing ourselves to other (often more successful) artists on social media. There are a lot of stigmas which need breaking down, everyone has their own path and we're not in a race to the finish line. Within the industry I do hope we can work on some of these causes, perhaps this could help to reduce some of the problems. Of course, no matter whether or not there is a cause, and no matter what point a creative is at in their career, mental health issues can still be there.
"You can be successful, well paid and well respected, producing work that you love, and you can still wake up and feel a complete lack of self worth, you can still worry unnecessarily to the point of anxiety, you can still be affected by traumas. And this is the second aspect that we can come together on as an industry, to advise and support peers who are suffering with poor mental health whoever they are."
Do you think the fact that the majority of respondents said they work from home, and/or feel they don’t earn a suitable amount to live sustainably from, contributes to issues such as anxiety or depression?
"Absolutely, it can be damaging to feel cut off, I experience this myself, it can be a bit of a toxic cycle. In the illustration survey the number of people working from home and the number with anxiety or confidence issues was almost exactly the same, both around 80 percent, I can't confirm that it's the exact same 80 percent but there's obviously a huge overlap between the two groups."
Tell us about your own experience.
"I have experienced depression since my teens, originally confirmed by a school counsellor and then having more in-depth therapy in my 20s and 30s (I'm now 42). Being referred to a counsellor at school aged 14 was originally very embarrassing and something that was kept quiet, but as a silver lining it did help me to consider from a young age how mental health can affect our minds in different ways, I think it allowed me to be more understanding. Since then I have learned to deal with it better, knowing the benefits of breathing and thought exercises, knowing when to be alone and when to talk to people. I still have periods of depression now, sometimes for weeks or months at a time and I struggle with feelings of inferiority and irrelevance in any wider society or community.
"I have been self-employed for almost 20 years and in the passed decade have been able to balance myself with my work. I work from my own home studio, which often helps when I'm not keen on seeing people, but at the same time it's essential to get outside, to have some kind of interaction with others, in order to function as a human and not dwell on the issues alone. I have also found my illustration work itself to be very therapeutic, drawing in pencil and then working on vector artwork is very relaxing, focusing on one simple task for as long as possible. The vector work especially is often a route to clarity for me. For me when work is good and I'm enjoying being busy I am in a far better state of mind."
How did you realise it was more than just having a 'bad phase'?
"When I was first experiencing depression I presumed it was just me against the world, standard adolescent thoughts, and found a release in music and art. However there were times when those outlets didn't work for me and this was difficult to deal with, when my teenage passions did nothing for me. I assume I was naive to 'mental health' at the time and it wasn't until my late teens early 20s that I was able to define it on my own terms and understand it in other people."
Who was your main support?
"For a long time I faced it alone, which has often pushed me to be overly independent, perhaps cutting myself off. I've rarely spoken to family or some friends. In the passed 10 years I have been able to open up to close friends, talk about it on social media and be completely comfortable talking about it to my wife. The doctors, counsellors and therapists I've spoken to have always been fantastic, confidential and looking for a positive outcome. I have never been keen on taking medication myself (having seen how it has affected someone close to me) and the NHS doctors I've seen have always completely understood this and preferred to look at counselling or lifestyle changes in order to seek solutions. The right medication can be beneficial to the right people, but it's not always a perfect solution."
Why should the creative community be honest about mental health issues?
"Because we have this statistic that shows us how prevalent it is, for whatever reason. The creative community can put a lot of energy into praising the successes and celebrating the talents and fortunes, but at the same time all communities should feel a duty to pick up those who are down, to realise where mental health issues might be lurking and lend a hand to someone who needs it. There is a culture on social media of sharing your good life, of trying to endlessly prove you're happy, but this can have such a negative effect on yourself and those observing you. If everyone could tweet one less humblebrag each day, and instead pay a compliment to someone else, I feel like people might start to feel more support and less self-doubt, and we can build a place where people aren't afraid to be starting out or know that they can make their way out of a bad period and move onward positively."
Why is it important to not struggle alone?
"I think the key here is the professional advice, to know where to turn to when they need it, to know the lifestyle changes or exercises that can help every day. None of us are trained to deal with this alone, after 25 years experience myself I'm still not (and never will be) a professional therapist, for myself or for others. Knowing a friend has got your back can be a priceless help, whether it's in person to talk over a coffee, or online to just share and have someone reply to you. With such a close knit community and such an online presence, none of us need be alone, and the more we talk about it, the more solidarity we'll feel."
What advice do you have for anyone who may be experiencing mental illness?
"Consider seeing a doctor, in the UK at least it is completely confidential and they will want to help you, that's their job. An NHS doctor can refer you to a counsellor who could, like me, enable you to process life experiences and find some answers to how you feel, or help you with therapies (for example CBT) that could help you right when you need it. If you can't talk to a doctor then start with a friend, colleague or relative.
"Depression and anxiety can happen to anyone, no matter how you were brought up, where you are in your career or how you live your life. Do not worry about work over your mental health, it is most important that you look after you. Living better with mental health issues will enable you to build a better career and create better work in the future. There are a lot of great exercises that can help but I'm not sure if it's for me to explain these in detail, for example CBT or following the 3-3-3 rule."
Ben is part of a group of illustrators – Tobias Hall, Jamie Lawson, Sydney Lovell, Jimi Mackay, Sharmelan Murugiah, Franklin O'Toole, Charlene Chua, Franklin O'Toole and Elle Jackson – who’ve shared their stories during Mental Health Awareness Week, with the purpose of providing insight and encouragement to someone who may be unsure on how to deal with their own mental health issues.
If you're experiencing feelings of mental illness, here are a few links to helplines and charities:
Mind – UK mental health charity that provides urgent help, advice on treatment, and sources of support
Mental health helplines suggested by the NHS – including Depression alliance, Men’s Health charity and OCD UK
Samaritans – A 24/7 helpline and charity providing emotional support for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, struggling to cope or in distress
Rethink – UK mental health charity providing information and services for anyone affected by mental illness
Anxiety UK – charity for people with anxiety. Many on our staff and volunteer team have personal experiences of anxiety
Bipolar UK – charity for people bipolar, their families and their carers