'None of us need to be alone': Illustrators' raw and honest accounts of how they've coped with mental illness

Artwork: Ben the Illustrator. Learn how it was created in this Adobe Illustrator tutorial on how to use the Puppet Warp tool.

“If everyone could tweet one less humblebrag each day, and instead pay a compliment to someone else, people might start to feel more support and less self-doubt,” says UK freelance illustrator Ben O’Brien, aka Ben the Illustrator.

He wants to open up about mental illness and how it’s quietly affecting the freelance illustrator community – and he’s not alone. Ben’s 2017 Illustration Survey found 79 percent of 1,261 respondents said they feel anxiety or confidence issues are affecting their careers. Following these revelations, eight illustrators and Ben have chosen to speak unapologetically here on Digital Arts about their own experiences with depression, anxiety, insomnia, bipolar disorder with psychosis and addiction.

To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, Ben and illustrators  Charlene ChuaTobias Hall, Elle Jackson, Jamie LawsonSydney LovellJimi MackaySharmelan MurugiahFranklin O'Toole open up with the purpose of providing insight and encouragement to someone who may be unsure on how to deal with their own mental health issues.

Here we feature advice from these illustrators alongside head of information at UK mental health charity Mind, Stephen Buckley’s professional advice. We explore potential triggers for mental illness among illustrators, how to identify depression and anxiety specifically, where to go for external support and how to deal with these issues.

By publishing personal accounts from illustrators, we intend to help others in a similar position feel less alone, and hopefully while achieving that, begin to wear away at the long-associated stigma of mental illness. However, we stress that we are not medical professionals. If you’re looking for professional external support take a look at Mind, or call the 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Alternatively, the Association of Illustrators has put together details of places you can turn to for help.

Identifying anxiety and depression

It can be hard to identify whether you’re experiencing anxiety and/or depression, or if you’re just going through a ‘rough phase’.

Mind says anxiety can become a mental health problem if your feelings of anxiety are very strong or last for a long time, your fears of worries are out of proportion to the situation or you avoid situations that might cause you to feel anxious, for example. If your worries feel very distressing or are hard to control and you regularly experience symptoms of anxiety – which could include panic attacks – you may find it hard to go about your everyday life or do the things you enjoy, and this means it can become a serious problem.

“If your symptoms fit a particular set of medical criteria then you might be diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder. But it's also possible to experience problems with anxiety without having a specific diagnosis,” explains Stephen.

“Most of us will feel down from time to time – we all have good days and bad days. However, if you’re feeling low for a couple of weeks or more without much change in mood, or such feelings return over and over again, this could be a sign of depression.”

There are common depressive symptoms such as feeling restless, irritable, seeing no point in the future, feeling disconnected from other people and gaining no pleasure from things usually enjoyed. Severe depression can be debilitating and life threatening, as it may cause suicidal thoughts.

A number of illustrators suggest referring yourself to a doctor or professional for a diagnosis, as this will help to demystify your feelings. In the UK it is completely confidential and an NHS doctor can refer you to a counsellor, or to further free therapy such as cognitive behaviour training (CBT). Waiting lists for therapy through the NHS can be long though, and so if you can afford to pay for counselling, you can get help much more quickly.

Sydney Lovell is a British illustrator who specialises in portrait illustrations and paintings in gouache.

Artwork of original Pink Floyd vocalist Syd Barrett by Sydney Lovell

“It wasn't until a suicide attempt in my mid 20s that I was finally diagnosed with C-PTSD and bipolar disorder with psychosis, and by that point it was such a relief to hear that diagnosis as it confirmed that what I was going through wasn't normal,” she says.

“Receiving a diagnosis helped me to recognise what was me and what was symptoms, and some things were symptoms that I would never have realised without professional support. This helped me to realise what I needed to work on and put strategies in place.”

Ben the Illustrator first experienced depression in his teenage years, originally confirmed by a school counsellor. He completed in-depth therapy in his 20s and 30s, and says he still has periods of experiencing depression now – sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

“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 and have some kind of interaction with others in order to function as a human and not dwell on the issues alone,” he says.

“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.”

Mental illness rarely has one cause

Mental illness rarely has one cause, and sometimes there’s no obvious reason. Some people might feel depressed or anxious for a certain period of time, and for others the symptoms can last for longer periods.

“My experience is that many creative types often have hermetic tendencies. Working for yourself, by yourself will see you spend perhaps an unhealthy amount of time alone — sometimes this is even fetishised and encouraged with the suggestion that one isn’t really ‘hustling’ unless they have what amount to terrible habits,” says Canadian illustrator, designer, and founder of Poly Studio, Jamie Lawson.

“This is, of course, nonsense. Though it’s an attitude that I see changing in the culture, it still bears repeating that developing healthy social habits is as important for a freelancer as their technique, professional practices or work ethic.”

Artwork by Jamie Lawson, Poly Studio

As well as having a lack of routine, financial ups and downs and long hours, working from home can be isolating.

“It can be damaging to feel cut off. I experience this myself, it can be a bit of a toxic cycle,” says Ben. “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.”

Another potential trigger may be the juxtaposition that social media plays in the life of a freelance illustrator. On one hand, you must actively engage in a range of platforms to promote your work, but on the other hand, it can be disheartening to see other people post about their success if you feel you’re also not in a successful period. Taking breaks from social media can be hugely beneficial for mental health – to take time to focus on your own positives and plan an optimistic future.

Depression seems to be rife amongst creative people, says UK illustrator and designer Jimi Mackay (Gang Studio), and it’s worth acknowledging the connection.

“As a creative person, I spend so much time in my own head, making mental notes, watching and analysing everything, attempting to connect the dots to create new ideas. I can have trouble switching off and can carry this over-analytical perspective into all aspects of my life,” he says.

Artwork by Jimi MacKay, Gang Studio

But mental health issues do not always arise from a difficult situation or obvious causes.

“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,” says Ben.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Canadian illustrator Charlene Chua experienced depression in a cultural environment where she felt she couldn’t be honest, and says the main thing is to not ignore any symptoms.

“Even if society disapproves of mental health issues, ignoring your problem will not make it go away,” she says. “You are not crazy or weak-willed if you seek help; if one doctor makes you feel uncomfortable, seek out another who understands. You can get help, and you can get better. The is a real, measurable improvement in life, I think, when you are properly treated for mental health conditions.”

Acknowledging how you feel can be the first step towards receiving help. If you are experiencing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, it’s most important that you confide in someone you trust, but also reach out to professional support so you’re not alone. Talking to your local GP and being referred to therapy can be a great place to start.

Mind has put together a guide with some tips on how to prepare for an appointment with a GP or practise nurse in which you need to open up about mental health. A doctor may offer medication, but medication may not be the answer for everyone.

“My doctor was clear that meds were not the complete answer to depression, especially when it came to self image,” says graphic designer and illustrator Franklin O’Toole.

“I started seeing a therapist who told me I needed to change my thinking patterns to reverse all the negative thoughts that had plagued me. At the same time I was lucky to discover my love for illustration and graphic design. So with changing my thought patterns, I also changed my career path.”

You can learn more about where to get help, medication and alternative treatments by reading the Mind website. Mind also has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am - 6pm, Monday – Friday).

If you’d prefer not to, or are unable to call, you can also text the Infoline team on 86463. The Infoline team will be able to provide you with information on different types on mental health problems, where to get help, advocacy, medication and alternative treatments. They can also help you find local sources of support, including local Minds.

External support systems used by other illustrators include The Sleep School, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) therapy from the NHS and online resources.

Here are a few links to therapy courses and external support:

The Sleep School – includes weekend workshops and support products on how to sleep better
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – a self-supporting (free) fellowship of men and women who share experiences with alcohol
Free therapy or counselling with the NHS – cognitive behaviour therapy, generalised anxiety disorder therapy and more
Mind Infoline – confidential information and emotional support line
Get Set to Go – Mind sports programme to help you to find the physical activity that’s right for you and help you to stick at it

Tell someone if you’re experiencing mental illness

If you can't yet be honest with a doctor then start with a friend, colleague or relative. It can be hard to find the courage to speak up, but it can set you on the right track.

“What I did was find two people who are very close to me and mentioned how I am feeling to them,” says UK illustrator Sharmelan Murugiah. “It just opened me up a little in order to then seek more professional help and really look into myself and figure some shit out.”

Artwork by Sharmelan Murugiah

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, says Ben.

“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.”

Even though you may be busy, finding time to access support when you need it can help you stay well and able to keep working.

“One of the major problems around mental health is the fact that society as a whole has covered it up for so long, so when an individual experiences problems, they feel broken or weak compared to ‘everyone else', which of course only exacerbates the problem,” says London-based illustrator Tobias Hall.

“Hopefully once mental health is known to be an issue for everyone at one point or another in life, it will take away some of that pressure to ‘be okay’ all the time.” 

Artwork by Tobias Hall

Lifestyle changes to improve mental health

If you’re experiencing anxiety, depression or other mental illness, it may seem overwhelming to try and reduce the impact of these feelings in your day-to-day life. But there are a number of ways in which you can introduce small lifestyle changes. We asked Mind for advice, and the illustrators we spoke to to share what has personally worked for them.

Mind suggests implementing changes such as taking a proper lunch break, getting regular fresh air and exercise, avoid working long hours and making sure you take time off work or book a holiday.

“At the end of each day, sit back and reflect on what you've done and what you've achieved, rather than spending time worrying about what still needs to be done,” says Stephen.

Try to take tasks one at a time, until each is finished. If you try to do too many at once, you're more likely to end up accomplishing less.

“In terms of my perspective as an art student, a mixture of anxiety and high functioning depression means that I make enormous tasks for myself and endless lists that I am more often too drained to complete,” says Bristol-based illustrator Elle Jackson.

“It has taken some time for me to realise that this is okay, and I am allowed to rest. You do not have to be creating all the time, and this notion that young artists must be sleep deprived and troubled to be a 'true artist' is nonsense.”

Artwork by Elle Jackson

Other suggestions from illustrators that have worked for them include walking in nature, meditative activities, volunteering for people or a cause that doesn’t necessarily benefit you, keeping a journal of your thoughts and prioritising sleep. Mind offers a sports programme, Get Set to Go, which can help people overcome barriers to exercising.

These may seem like simplistic salves if you’re suffering from serious anxiety or depression, but they can be used alongside therapy and medication to make the day-to-day a little easier to cope with.

Reading books or listening to podcasts on mindfulness is another suggestion. Tobias recommends the book The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris, which teaches ACT therapy and mindfulness for anyone experiencing depression or anxiety.

Read interviews with each of the illustrators talking about the personal challenges and successes in their own experiences with mental illness.

Ben the Illustrator on why we need to be honest about mental illness
Charlene Chua on having depression in a culture that saw it as 'taboo'
Tobias Hall on how mindfulness helped with insomnia and anxiety
Elle Jackson: "I'm still learning to ask for help"
Jamie Lawson on learning to heal from addiction, anxiety and depression
Sydney Lovell on experiencing C-PTSD and bipolar disorder with psychosis
Jimi MacKay on why 'depression seems to be rife amongst creative people'
Sharmelan Murugiah: "Most importantly, I am going to be open and honest with how I am feeling"
Franklin O’Toole: "My new way of looking at things keeps me happy, motivated and hopeful"

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

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