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"Mental illness is something I experience - not something I am": A Q&A with Matt Haig

Matt Haig is a bestselling author who has written candidly about his own experience of anxiety and depression. Ahead of World Mental Health Day, we speak to Matt about his new book and the ways that he copes with the pressures of a fast-paced, ever-changing world…

Hi Matt, it’s brilliant to speak to you. Could you first tell me a bit about your own experience of mental illness?

So, I was 24 when I first experienced anxiety, depression and panic attacks. I was a young man trying to put off being an adult, living and working in Ibiza. For the past three summers, I’d lived a hedonistic life of drink and drugs, but had vowed to myself this was the last summer before I would get a proper job. A lot of life pressures were on the horizon.

It was September, two weeks before coming back to England, when I had a full-blown breakdown.

What happened during that breakdown? 

The day it happened, I hadn't been drinking or taken any drugs - in fact I’d been on a run that morning. It was 1 in the afternoon and I just had a panic attack that didn't end. It was a totally overwhelming, full body nightmare. I felt so out of control. Even after visiting the medical centre the panic didn’t stop.

I became suicidal - not for any death wish, but sheerly because I didn’t know how to cope with the pain. I just didn’t know how to live, and I had no idea how I’d got there – which meant I had no idea how to get out of it.

That sounds really frightening. How did you deal with that?  

I stopped drinking and smoking. That was a no-brainer. But recovery was so slow that I didn't see myself ever getting there. I was just in a state of continual dread.

I was incredibly lucky that I had good people around me - my parents and my girlfriend Andrea were very supportive. But I felt like a million miles away. I resented them because I didn't want to hurt anyone, but I was in this total pain.

I didn’t go the most conventional route. I had been prescribed medication in Spain, which wasn’t helpful. Back in the UK I went to my GP, who was very judgmental about the alcohol and drugs I'd taken in the past. So I retreated and didn't go the NHS root. Although I wouldn't advise that for anyone - and I wish I could go back and talk myself out of that – I did gradually recover. And there are definitely things I learned during my slower recovery.

What kind of things did you learn through that time?

It sounds like a familiar story, but at the time I didn’t know of anyone who'd been through depression or anxiety, let alone panic disorder which was my first diagnosis. I felt incredibly alone, like I was having some sort of test that no one else had ever had.

But I began to understand what makes me feel better and worse - because I was so aware of everything. And I saw, with time, that not every bad thing that depression is telling you will happen happens.

When my depression began, I thought I'd be dead by the age of 25. I thought I was going to have a heart attack or totally lose my mind by the end of a day. But slowly time disproves those things. You live to be 25 years old, you see that your relationship doesn’t fall apart. 

Your new book, ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’, came out recently. How did the idea for the book come about?

I’d written ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ about my own experience of mental illness four years before. That was the first time I’d written nonfiction and it was very personal. I knew that if I wrote about mental health again, I’d have to come at it from a different angle.

In the years since ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ was published, I’d started to regret that I hadn't talked about the social context of mental illness. Our mental health can be affected by how we live - and one of the things that helped me get better was understanding that anxiety and depression weren’t 100% beyond my control. There were certain things I could do that helped. Running was a great reliever for me, because while you're running you’re having the symptoms of a panic attack. Your heart’s racing, you’re sweating, you’re out of breath, but you know why that’s happening. You can control it.

But there are all kinds of aspects of the modern world that can make us feel worse. Even though my addictions now are much healthier than alcohol, they’re still addictions. I was spending a lot of the time arguing with people on the internet – it was self-destructive and having a detrimental effect on my mental health. I wanted the book to be a place for people to go and understand more about how we’re living and how we can help ourselves.

The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘young people and mental health in a changing world’. You talk a lot in the book about societal pressures - what do you think are the pressures on young people specifically?

There’s a ridiculous amount of pressure on young people, especially with social media. Look at the most recent facts that came out about the loneliest group of people being 16 - 25 year olds. That’s the most connected generation there’s ever been.

But I don’t think it's simply a social media problem. It’s a social values problem. People feel like they're not valued as human beings. Half of mental health conditions emerge in people under 14 and I think that education has a lot to answer for that. The school system’s approach of league tables and testing is not making children feel that they are valued for themselves. We’re creating grade machines rather than people – we’re losing that sense of what being a human is all about.

What do you wish more people realised about mental health - how has your experience changed your own perspective?

It was a big psychological change for me when I stopped thinking of mental illness as something that defined me. It’s something I experience rather than something that I am.

I also think there needs to be a massive shift in recognising that mental health is just health. That’s a big brick wall we’ve had for hundreds, if not thousands, of years - and it needs to be knocked down. People still don’t understand mental health as a health issue – they understand it as a personality trait or a weakness. While we accept that we don’t have control over our bodies, to accept that we don’t have control over our minds is a bigger step to make. That’s a fundamental challenge and it’s a scary thing. 

And finally, what are your hopes for what mental health research can achieve?

It would be great to understand more about cause and effect, and how the brain interacts with the world. How much of our mental health can we control through exercise or lifestyle factors, and how much is the genetic lottery of our brain chemistry? All of these are still grey areas.

There’s also so much contradictory information in terms of medication – there are two main types of antidepressants which are completely different but do similar things. I think we need more data – in particular, more objective data - to make sure that people are prescribed the right treatment for them.

‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ is out now.  

Last updated: 9 October 2018

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