Matt Haig is a British author for children and adults. His memoir Reasons to Stay Alive was a number one bestseller and he's written extensively for adults and children alike. His most recent books include Notes on a Nervous Planet, a non-fiction book about the world's anxiety, and Evie and the Animals, a children's book about a girl who can talk to animals. Here he talks about the state of mental health in our society.
I was scared about putting something so personal into writing, and it took me a lot of books before I wrote Reasons to Stay Alive which was book number 11. I don’t think I’d have ever written it if I hadn’t been asked to write it by a friend. But actually, the act of writing about mental health was quite easy. It didn’t send me back to a bad place. I think when you’ve been through a tense experience, it’s always there, so writing about it felt like a release.
Reasons to Stay Alive was a totally new thing for me to do at that time, I’d never done anything like it. I went into it knowing everything I was going to write about. Whereas Notes on a Nervous Planet, I wrote to research and understand myself better and understand the world better. The fun thing about that was finding solutions I didn’t know before. Reasons to Stay Alive was about my own journey and Notes of a Nervous Planet was about out collective journey together in the 21st Century and what affects out mental health.
When asked what can we do collectively to ease our anxieties, I say that the big thing that needs to happen is that we need to start seeing mental health truly as health. There’s a lot of public commentators who still don’t see that. There’s the implication, even if people aren’t saying it directly, that mental health isn’t really health but it’s a personality flaw.
I think we should expect more from the media and public figures about how they talk about mental health. For example, every time a celebrity talks about depression and anxiety it’s treated as a ‘confession’ and the word ‘admits’ is used a lot and that needs to stop. But also understanding what affects our mental health in the same way that we’re clued up on what affects our physical health. We know about fast food, smoking, sedimentary lifestyle, we need to be more aware of triggers of bad mental health. The next stage will be seeing it as a public health issue.
We don’t wait to go to the doctor with our physical health until we think literally think we’re going to die that weekend but at the moment that’s the state that people are in with their mental health. It’s not their fault, that’s the system. People have to be literally on the point of suicide before they're taken seriously.
I definitely think it would help the health care system and decrease stigma if we understood that mental health is often a preventative thing and it’s about looking after our own and others mental health. We all have mental health. No one’s mental health is 100% perfect, just as our physical health isn’t, and it all fluctuates.
Matt Haig talked Notes on a Nervous Planet and Evie and the Animals at Hay Festival on Saturday 1 May and Sunday 2 May. Listen again on Hay Player here.