Lucy Nichol's mental health memoir, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, is out now from Trigger Publishing. We speak to her about why she felt this book needed to be written.
You've lived with Generalised Anxiety Disorder for many years, but what inspired you to start writing about it?
I worked in communications for a national charity that has a number of mental health services. And I'd been asking people to share their story for UK awareness days. It struck me that it was a bit wrong that I was encouraging others to write about their experience of mental illness, when I'd never shared mine, and so the blogging began in 2016...
Your focus is as much on stigma as it is on anxiety. Why is this so important to you?
I've experienced stigma, and I've doled it out too. None of us are perfect when it comes to how we treat others and I, personally, have learnt a lot over the years about some of my own warped views on mental illness.
Having experienced stigma directly made me realise the impact that it can have and how it can inhibit recovery. And also how stigma can translate into self stigma, when you internalise it all, which makes the whole thing an even bigger ball of negativity.
So I wanted to challenge stigmas - without attacking individuals. Which is why I felt it was important to be upfront about my own learning. It has to be about conversation, not division.
There's a lot about the changing views and media portrayals of mental illness over the last few decades. Why did you choose this backdrop?
As somebody who has worked in media and PR for many years I understand how powerful the media is, and also how cynical it can be. And I think it's only right to challenge what we see.
There's no arguing that portrayals of mental illness have got better over the years, but movies such as Fatal Attraction and the bunny boiler image of borderline personality disorder and reports of struggling rock stars' 'wild behaviour' are still circulating. We grew up with these stories and they will have shaped our views to some extent as we grew up. Reflection is key.
How do you think mental illness is portrayed today? Has it improved?
Most definitely - but it's not perfect, which is why we need to highlight the impact that stigma can have. I have been doing some work with UK charity, Mind's, script advice service - its very existence evidencing the fact that the media is taking mental health stigma seriously.
The service allows scriptwriters and researchers access to critique to ensure portrayals are responsible and unlikely to have a negative impact on people. But what's so great about it is that it doesn't just inhibit negative impacts, the power of TV and the movies, etc is so great that, conversely, it can have such a significant positive impact. The media is using its platform to help people feel less alone and learn more about mental health.
Soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street have been doing great things, and dramas like Homeland, in my view, have also shown mental illness responsibly. When you think about the character of Carrie in Homeland, and the central character, Rachel, in the movie The Girl on the Train, we are taken on a journey that proves you shouldn't judge a person based on their mental illness. Carrie has bipolar disorder but is still immensely talented often with sound judgement, and just because Rachel has a drink problem it doesn't mean she's automatically the villain of the piece. These portrayals really make you think about things differently.
There's a lot of humour in your book. Why did you decide to take this approach when tackling a serious issue?
I think you have to entertain to engage. Not everybody wants to read a textbook. And I, personally, find that if I view some of my anxiety humorously, it makes it feel less frightening. I can giggle at it which takes the power away from it and gives it back to me.
I remember sitting with a friend having a coffee sharing our most embarrassing, ridiculous thoughts that our anxiety created. Often, I find these things shameful - how could I really believe / think / do that? But we sat roaring with laughter about these things and it gave us relief.
So I hope my book will help people to do that. And also, I grew up in the 80s and 90s - there were plenty of ridiculous things to laugh at. Add to that, I'm a Brit - we take the piss out of ourselves constantly - it's like a national past time. So you could say it was in my blood to write in such a self-depracating way.
After the success of your column 'It couldn't happen to a nicer...' for Standard Issue Magazine, what's next?
I have a new podcast. It's called The REALLY Cast - it's a follow-on from my former Standard Issue column - which was designed to challenge stigma around mental health by putting people in professional boxes to prove that, with mental health problems, you can't put people in boxes. I have interviewed public speakers with anxiety, a former NHS Chief Exec with bipolar who is in recovery from alcoholism, and a hugely successful writer with OCD and many more. It's available on Soundcloud, iTunes, Spotify, etc.
To order a copy of A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes click here