As a mental health campaigner with a track record of talking about her experiences of anxiety and an eating disorder, you’d be forgiven for assuming Natasha Devon would object to being called “mental”.
But through her new book, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’, the 37-year-old wants to reclaim the word, pointing out every one of us is “mental” in a very literal sense.
“We all have a head with a brain in it, which means we all have a mental health, in just the same way as we all have a body, so we’ve all got a physical health,” she tells HuffPost UK. It’s hard to argue with her logic. So, what else does the author want us to know about ‘being mental?’
Mental health doesn’t just affect one in four people. This number may be the go-to statistic when it comes to mental health, but Natasha is dubious. The figure is based on a household survey conducted by NHS digital in 2007, but subsequent NHS surveys have suggested the prevalence of mental health issues may be much higher.
Natasha believes we need to move away from using stats to talk about mental health in this way altogether. “We need to stop saying ‘one in four’, because it others mental health, when in fact, it would be ridiculous to say ‘one in four people have had a physical health problem’. What does that even mean?” she says. “Right now, we are all on a spectrum of mental health and mental health issues don’t just crop up overnight, it’s that ‘drip drip’ effect that can be exacerbated by everyday problems, like stress.”
Don’t be afraid of diagnosis. Natasha began to experience what she now recognises as symptoms of an anxiety disorder, including panic attacks, around the age of 10, but didn’t receive a diagnosis until she was 31. Now, she spreads the message that diagnosis is a good thing.
“Diagnosis was a huge relief to me because in the interim period between 10 and 31, I developed lots of coping strategies, the most pronounced of which was my eating disorder that lasted for seven years,” she says.
“I just thought that I was ‘less good’ at dealing with life than other people were, so suddenly for this thing to be given a name and to understand that I could manage it and there were steps that I could take - it made me feel that I was back in control again and it was also incredibly validating.”
Recovery is rarely down to one thing. A combination of lifestyle changes, such as exercising, getting outside in the fresh air and healthy eating, alongside more formal treatment, such as medication, help Natasha to manage her anxiety, and she believes each are equally important.
She takes sertraline - an antidepressant often prescribed for anxiety - daily, but has also developed her own strategy to encourage herself to get out of the house when she “wouldn’t necessarily feel like it”.
“If I let my anxiety win, I would just end up staying in my house all day and I would never see anyone. So I have a process on days when I really don’t want to go out where I bargain with myself,” she explains. “I talk myself through bit by bit, saying ‘just get up’, ‘just put your clothes on’, ‘just go out the front door’, ‘just walk to the end of the road’ and then I normally find that actually talking to people once I’m out really helps to keep my anxiety in check.”
Mental health workers and loved ones need support too. Much of Natasha’s work includes going into schools and talking to young people about mental health and their own concerns. Whether you’re supporting a loved one struggling with a mental illness, or you’re working in the mental health sector, she recommends taking time to look after yourself, too.
“I have a weekly therapy appointment,” she explains. “People share sometimes really disturbing, dark and upsetting stories and memories with you. While I’m so glad they feel they can talk to me about those things, I carry that with me afterwards, so it’s good to have some supervision to make sure you have somewhere to offload as well.”
Mental illness is part of everyday life for many people. When celebrities talk about their experiences of mental illness, it’s often in retrospect, presented as something they’ve been through and overcome, Natasha argues. While she thinks this does go some way to help challenge stigma, she’d like to see more people talking about their mental health in the present.
“I understand that a lot of the time when you’re struggling, you’re not in a position to be reaching out and generating publicity,” she says. “But for those of us like myself who have a long term mental health condition - I’ve had this for 27 years now and I don’t think it’s going anywhere - I think there is value in saying ‘this is actually something that I am living with right now’.
“You can hear I am speaking in coherent sentences, I haven’t killed anyone during my commute, I am not crazy - I have a mental illness, and that’s a different thing.”
The internet’s role has been overstated. An entire chapter of Natasha’s book is dedicated to the internet and the complex ways it can have an impact on our mental health, from the ways selfie “likes” can affect our self-esteem to the dangers of pro-anorexia and pro-self-harm websites. Although she encourages young people to develop strategies to deal with such things, Natasha says it’s possible the impact the internet has on our mental health has been overstated.
This week a survey of more than 1,500 people by the Where’s Your Head At campaign, which Natasha has partnered with, found just 16% of people thought social media and the internet was having a detrimental effect on their mental health. Instead, work stress and money were more prominent concerns.
“When you listen to Government rhetoric and our health secretary Jeremy Hunt, whenever he’s challenged on the topic of mental health, particularly with young people, he always defers to social media. I think that’s possibly quite convenient to him because that’s not something he has direct control over as the health secretary,” she says.
We need to focus on prevention in a ‘serious way’. If kids are lucky, they might have an hour-long PSHE lesson on mental health where a campaigner, like Natasha, is invited in to talk. But she’d like schools to go much further to ensure children’s mental wellbeing can flourish throughout their school careers.
“We need to be thinking about getting more things that are conducive to good mental health into the school day, such as exercise, fresh air and quality food into the school canteen,” she says. “We need to look at more funding for things like art and music and drama, which we know have therapeutic value for people who are at all places on the mental health spectrum.”
Once we’ve nailed a system that gives children the best possible chance of having good mental health in school, Natasha would like to see that model rolled out in workplaces and society in general, looking at the ways adults can live better lives.
“We need to make it [good mental health] a priority day-to-day,” she says. “Not just when we reach crisis point.”
Natasha’s new book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’ (Bluebird, £12.99) is available now.