As part of our in-depth look at the effects of mental illness on illustrators, UK-based artist and designer Jimi Mackay, the man behind Gang Studio which focuses on social and environmental causes, opens up about his experiences.
Tell us a bit about your experience with mental health and/or addiction.
"I’ve suffered from episodes of depression for most of my life until reasonably recently. It’s always seemed to be closely linked with addiction. I dropped out of university after the first year because I felt so low I didn’t want to leave my room, everything felt empty and pointless and I had insomnia for months. It was brutal. At that time I was smoking a lot of weed. This was the first time I talked to other people about how I was feeling – my mum, a doctor and a counsellor. I quit smoking which definitely helped for a little while.
"Throughout my professional career, I would binge drink and take cocaine which would lead to anxiety attacks and suicidal comedowns. The hangovers and comedowns seemed to get worse and worse as I got older. It would take days, sometimes weeks to convince myself that my life hadn’t completely fallen apart. I was stuck in a cycle of feeling awful, recovering, feeling okay, celebrating the fact I felt okay, feeling awful again.
"For so long I would blame everything entirely on drink and drugs. I became T-Total for a year. I definitely felt better to start with but then episodes of depression started to return. This was a scary time as I didn’t have a comedown or hangover to blame it on. That's when I started to realise that drinking and drug-taking might not be the root cause, if anything I was actually using those things to self-medicate, it just wasn’t working."
How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a freelance illustrator?
"Ultimately I don’t think my experiences of depression have stemmed from being a freelance illustrator, or from any particular job or creative role for that matter. I think it’s more deep-rooted than that. My understanding is that it’s a lot more to do with my upbringing, past trauma, conditioning, exposure to advertising and marketing, than a reaction to my current circumstances.
"In the past I've definitely felt less able to cope with certain insecurities associated with being freelance - not getting paid on time, not winning a job I've pitched on or when there isn’t much work about, but I don't think these things have caused depression, they just haven’t helped.
"Depression seems to be rife amongst creative people so I definitely acknowledge the link. 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."
Where, who, or what organisation did you go to for support?
"My ex-girlfriend and current girlfriend were a big help. They encouraged me to seek professional help and reach out to people when I just wanted to ignore how I was feeling. My Mum and sister have always been good to talk to as well although there are some things I felt I just couldn’t discuss with my family or girlfriends.
"I tried AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) for a little while. I met a lot of great people and really felt the community vibe. I think I just found it a little too focussed on presenting alcohol and drugs as the main cause of my suffering rather than a reaction to it.
"I’ve seen a few different therapists. My first experiences weren’t great, but eventually, I found somebody I clicked with. I felt a real connection with her and she really helped me process and acknowledge certain things from my past.
"I read books and listen to podcasts on spirituality, meditation and philosophy. My understanding is that depression happens when I get too identified with my thinking or take my thoughts too seriously. The rest of the natural world works perfectly fine without stopping to analyse every little thing that happens or could happen. I like to be reminded that I am part of life and not separate from it."
What did you find helped your situation?
"One of the biggest help was exploring and understanding some of the reasons why I was feeling like I was in the first place. Processing past trauma with a therapist was so helpful. I I also found it much easier to be completely honest with someone I didn’t know.
"I try to participate in actual natural life as much as possible, even when I think I don't want to. I've don't drink, smoke or take drugs, I try and eat more whole foods, I jog, exercise and go on walks, I try to get out of my room/studio and hang out with people, I speak to strangers when I'm out and about and try not to always listen to headphones when I'm walking. I like to take in what’s happening around me. I also make sure I get out of the city or at least get down to the park once in a while.
"Again, reading and listening to podcasts has helped massively, I just started at a certain point and went on a journey with it."
What advice would you have for a fellow creative who may be experiencing mental health issues?
"You are not alone. There's an undeniable link between creativity and depression. The way you are feeling is not your fault and you 100 percent have the power to change it, just be open to that idea.
"Talk to someone and explore where this is stemming from. I recommend a good therapist. I realise there's a cost involved but I would rather be poor and happy than rich and sad.
"Find activities that get you out of your head, that involve you actually living life rather than thinking about it or watching it on a screen. All the cliches work, walking in nature, exercise, getting out of the city, interacting with people, meditating or other meditative activities instead like ping pong (all my troubles evaporate when I play ping pong).
"Volunteering. Now if you're like I was, you might be thinking “no way, I have my own problems to sort out before I help anyone else” but I would recommend it, it feels good to help other people or dedicate yourself to something that isn’t benefiting you. Depression is so focused on the self, focus on someone or something else and watch it evaporate.
"Go on a spiritual journey. I realise that this sounds really cringe to a lot of people, but realising that I am part of something much bigger than the needy little voice in my head has been liberating. I'm not necessarily talking about yoga, meditation, and chanting. I find the vast majority of things I read or listen to are mostly very logical but I can’t tell you how many times I've stumbled across the most helpful ideas and had the most incredible realisations."
You've recently been creating work based on mental health. Tell us about this.
"As I've mentioned, my mental health, creativity and general peace of mind seem dependent on how identified I am with my thoughts. So recently I’ve been making work that serves as a reminder that my thoughts are not who I am.
"I made a piece called MMICATML which is a big custom mirror with the text 'My mind is crazy and tells me lies' screen printed on the front. The piece explores the idea that our thoughts are so heavily conditioned by external factors, our upbringing, our parent's views and past traumas etc that they’re not really “ours” at all.
"I used to give myself such a hard time, I would be so self-critical and put myself down and I just remember thinking 'how can this be who I am?' I've since realised that it isn’t who I am, the negative thinking is just the result of certain life experiences."
Jimi is part of a group of illustrators – Ben O’Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator), Tobias Hall, Jamie Lawson, Sydney Lovell, Sharmelan Murugiah, Franklin O'Toole, Charlene Chua 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