Sharmelan Murugiah: "Most importantly, I am going to be open and honest with how I am feeling"

Sharmelan Murugiah

As part of our in-depth look at the effects of mental illness on illustrators, London-based freelance artist Sharmelan Murugiah, behind Studio Murugiah, opens up about his experiences.

Tell us a bit about your experience with mental health and/or addiction.

"Since I can remember I have always had issues with low self esteem, self worth; often being the quiet one in different groups of friends. After working as a designer at Scribbler cards and then Leon restaurants, in the summer of 2016 I decided to follow my true passion and become a commercial artist; going freelance was the way.

"In the lead up to my 30th birthday in February this year I have been feeling alone, I have had mood changes from being quite calm and happy to suddenly feeling depressed. I have felt a social withdrawal from my friends even though the dynamics of my friendships have been the same for a long time. My sleeping patterns have changed slightly, but I’ve never been able to get more than a few hours sleep. I’ve felt angry and irritable at simple things and joked about my own mortality and suicide sometimes. So I've been a hoot to be around lately! I realised things weren’t right am now seeking help from professionals. At the time of writing this I have obtained some phone numbers and contact details from my GP for various professionals and groups but have not yet made an enquiry."

How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a freelance illustrator?

"I do feel the life of being an illustrator can be quite lonely. I am set up in a solitary home studio. I made my way into this profession via architecture and then design so I have not had those early connections with folks in the industry. The growing effect of social media on my work can also make you feel pressured. Seeing work pour out of other artists social accounts even though I know we use social media generally to present the best of ourselves online."

Sharmelan Murugiah

What did you find helped your situation?

"There are a few things that I am doing personally to improve my situation. I have started a regular exercise program of YouTube workout videos followed by getting outside and going for a run every day.

"I am connecting with more artists and illustrations online arranging meet ups and attending events organised by the AOI and my agent, Debut Art. I am getting some money together to buy a laptop so I can decide where I'd like to work each day, I could work at the Royal Festival Hall for a day or the British Library another day. That’s very exciting to think about.

"I’ve been reducing my phone and social media usage constantly. But most importantly I am going to be open and honest with how I am feeling, when I am feeling it to anyone and everyone who asks. One bit of advice I gave myself in my work is ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ and I should apply that to personal issues more."

Sharmelan Murugiah for New Scientist

What advice would you have for a fellow creative who may be experiencing mental health issues?

"Talk to someone. Please, I know how hard it can be to open up or find the courage to speak but what I did was find two people who are very close to me and mention how I am feeling to them, 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."

Sharmelan is part of a group of illustrators – Ben O’Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator)Tobias HallJamie LawsonSydney LovellJimi MackayFranklin O'TooleCharlene 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

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