Mental health awareness

snow fields

There is a big campaign, with lots of publicity, about speaking out on mental health issues and making it okay to admit to friends and family that you have problems. This is a good initiative but there are a few issues I’ve noticed.

Virtue signalling for exposure
Some celebrities have hijacked the subject of mental health to promote new books, new tv shows, almost anything they are ‘selling’. Their past, maybe current, problems are probably real, but when the last part of their ‘confession’ is a commercial link or tag, I begin to question their motives – or those of their agents.

Me too reactions
When a mental issue is raised among friends or family there is often a ‘me too’ reaction. Phrases which I’ve heard include…

1 Well I could let myself be depressed, but I just shake myself out of it.

2 We’re all on the autistic scale somewhere.

3 God I know what you mean, like I literally have thought about killing myself so many times.

4 We’ve all got OCD to some extent, I do loads of those things too.

5 I’ve had a few sessions with CBT and it’s cured me completely.

6 There’s nothing wrong with you, I’ve known you for years and you don’t have that.

I hope I don’t need to pick apart each one of these responses, but if you haven’t suffered from any serious mental health issues you will never fully understand the trauma they can cause. I spent some time as a Samaritan listener and it put my own problems firmly in perspective. Yes, I have been diagnosed with mental health problems. Yes, I do take some modest medication to help with those problems. But I cope.

From the casual observer’s point of view I have lived a pretty normal, stable life. But nobody knows what goes on inside someone else’s head. To suggest you do, and that’s it’s perfectly normal, is as ridiculous as saying “I used to only have one leg, but I decided to grow another one”.

Bauhaus legacy

painting by George Adams of the Bauhaus

I was extraordinarily lucky to be mentored by George Adams in my first year of studying Art and Design. This was a designer and artist who had studied at the Weimar Bauhaus under Walter Gropius in the early 1920s.

Elements of his teachings are still in the forefront of my mind today, over fifty years later. He didn’t teach us how to draw, but how to think. More importantly he told us never to stop ‘playing’. That element of play in design, illustration, painting and in creative writing are essential in allowing you to live what you are making.

In writing this allows characters to ‘take over’ the plot, to drive different storylines. You start off by being a puppeteer, you end up more like a puppet hanging on for the ride.

Thank you George Adams, you changed my life.

I was born in black and white

Bruce Aiken aged 4 or 5

I am a part of that post war, baby boom, privileged generation – except it wasn’t quite like that for everyone.

Silver spoons from which to sup were few and far between in the suburban hinterland between North Kent and London. The most common weed on our pavements was wheat, still trying to break through the asphalt from the corn fields our suburb replaced. Prefabricated building littered the area for those who had lost their homes in the WW2 air raids of London and half ruined buildings and bomb sites were our adventure playgrounds.

They were a lot of children. That meant many potential friends and about twice as many potential enemies for an isolated kid who didn’t understand social interactions (many, many years later I was diagnosed as sub clinically autistic (what was Aspergers) and not even my GP can explain exactly what that means.

I was educated at a now vanished Grammar School and subsequently at the University of the Arts, London. At my graduation show I was recruited by Pearson Longman, after a cursory interview in a room with no windows (it might have been a cupboard).

A few years later I founded an advertising agency in Bristol with a business partner as equally confused by life as I was, but that was all a bit too serious and it only lasted three years. Since then I have worked on freelance commissions from publishers, book packagers, corporations, manufacturers, tourism boards, charities, theatres, the NHS, car manufacturers, various museums and several festivals – I’ve lost track of the complete list.

Interspersed with this work I have lectured, drawn humorous postcards, worked in youth theatre and educational storytelling groups. Amidst all this I managed to marry, stay married, raise two children, two cats, several fish and, of course, I write.