Liv­ing with ‘ the wolf in the woods’

Mul­lenLowe’s Matt Butterwort­h opens up about de­pres­sion and looks at how an in­dus­try prone to the disease can learn to cope.

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I know a wolf. He is liv­ing in the woods and has been for more than 17 years, but I know full well he is go­ing to come back to ter­rorise me at some point. He will make me feel vul­ner­a­ble and help­less, he will scare the life out of me. When he gets close, I will go into hid­ing in a deep dark place where he can’t see me; it’s the only way I can pro­tect my­self from this hor­ri­ble cruel mon­ster.

To­day as we come out of Covid-19, there are go­ing to be a lot more wolves in the woods. The main psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact to date has been the el­e­vated rates of stress or anx­i­ety. But as new mea­sures and im­pacts are in­tro­duced – es­pe­cially quar­an­tine and its ef­fects on many peo­ple’s usual ac­tiv­i­ties, rou­tines or liveli­hoods – lev­els of lone­li­ness, de­pres­sion, harm­ful ad­dic­tions, self-harm or sui­ci­dal be­hav­iour are also ex­pected to rise.

I was asked to write this ar­ti­cle on de­pres­sion and the links to Covid-19, but in par­tic­u­lar the ef­fect on the cre­ative in­dus­try.

Make no mis­take, this ar­ti­cle is with­out doubt the hard­est thing I have ever had to do. I am open­ing up my vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and weak­nesses that put me at risk of the wolf com­ing back and do­ing some se­ri­ous dam­age. I won­der: what if my clients per­ceive me dif­fer­ently, what if my col­leagues who read this see me as weak when I need to be strong? But I need to speak out.

Fel­low agency peo­ple take note. Our sec­tor has a big is­sue. Peo­ple who work in the cre­ative in­dus­try are three times more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence is­sues with men­tal health and well­be­ing than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Last year, Ul­ster Univer­sity re­searchers in­ter­viewed 574 peo­ple and found 36 per cent had been di­ag­nosed with anx­i­ety, 32 per cent with de­pres­sion and 60 per cent had, at some point, con­sid­ered sui­ci­dal thoughts.

Peter McBride, of char­ity In­spire, which com­mis­sioned the re­search, told the BBC that peo­ple who are cre­ative are likely to be more in touch with their feel­ings. “That can mean they some­times ex­pe­ri­ence things dif­fer­ently or more deeply than other peo­ple; that’s part of their craft,” he said.

There’s no deny­ing that agency life can be stress­ful. Work­ing tire­less cre­ative hours to get to the fi­nal stages of a pitch, to be told you lost it be­cause your cre­ative didn’t hit the mark or your strat­egy was too ad­vanced is dev­as­tat­ing.

And what do we do? Pick our­selves up, dust our­selves down and then throw ev­ery­thing we have into try­ing to win an­other one, only for it to hap­pen again two weeks later. It’s men­tal tor­ture at its high­est and we have no real cop­ing strate­gies.

I had a men­tal break­down in early 2003, and I suf­fer from se­vere bouts of de­pres­sion from time to time. Worst of all, I don’t know why. If we meet you would never know; I am told I have great en­ergy, I al­ways have a half-full rather than half- empty at­ti­tude to life.

I have a rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful ca­reer, with two beau­ti­ful chil­dren and a wife I adore. I have a job I love. I did travel the world (be­fore Covid). I am a per­son who should never be de­pressed; there are far more peo­ple in the world that have a rea­son to be sad, anx­ious and vul­ner­a­ble, es­pe­cially at a time of global cri­sis.

And yet, de­spite all of this, with­out warn­ing I can feel like the loneli­est per­son on the planet. It is a hor­ri­ble crush­ing black hole of pain that is never-end­ing. I am also a proud man. I be­lieve it’s im­por­tant my chil­dren and col­leagues see me as a role model and a strong sup­port, so be­ing weak and vul­ner­a­ble is not an op­tion.

I have learned over the years to un­der­stand that the wolf will be with me for the rest of my life and there is noth­ing I can re­ally do about it. For oth­ers it may be very dif­fer­ent and they will have cop­ing strate­gies. What’s right for one per­son is very dif­fer­ent for some­one else.

To­day I’m quite good at be­ing open with peo­ple about men­tal health, al­though I am still cau­tious on the in­for­ma­tion I give away. When I am en­ter­ing my dark phase, I am con­scious of it and of­ten will try and de­flect it by pre­tend­ing the wolf isn’t com­ing. And some­times that will trig­ger me at the right mo­ment to say and do the right thing. My wife has been the rock that never judges me. She lis­tens and en­cour­ages me to be open.

All I can say to ev­ery per­son in this in­dus­try is: it’s al­ways ben­e­fit­ted me to be open. I can’t in all honesty say it will ben­e­fit ev­ery­one. The truth is I’m afraid be­cause of the stigma, be­cause of the taboo, be­cause of the dis­crim­i­na­tion that does some­times ex­ist. It could be worse for some peo­ple. If all of us could some­how make the leap to­gether to be more open, then the ill and the non-ill alike would be bet­ter off.

So I plead with you, if you can’t cope, even if you’re strug­gling or feel­ing over­whelmed, reach out and talk. There are some won­der­ful or­gan­i­sa­tions and pro­fes­sion­als you can talk to, and one thing I can prom­ise you is you are never alone.

I am proud of that fact that, work­ing for MCN, the group has come into its own, es­pe­cially with men­tal well­be­ing. They have pro­vided weekly we­bi­nars for all em­ploy­ees about how to cope with anx­i­eties and man­ag­ing sit­u­a­tions when you emo­tion­ally strug­gle – from the emo­tional well­be­ing of home­school­ing to the ba­sics such as eat­ing well and stay­ing fit.

With ev­ery­thing that is hap­pen­ing in the world, our men­tal well­be­ing is be­ing tested to the limit. We are part of a cre­ative in­dus­try that also is more sus­cep­ti­ble to men­tal ill­ness. Now is the time more than ever be­fore to reach out to our col­leagues, friends and fam­ily and recog­nise the changes we see in their be­hav­iour, the mood swings, the sub­dued en­ergy, the anger. And, just maybe, re­alise that they aren’t be­ing dif­fi­cult or a pain. They could be suf­fer­ing and in need of a lit­tle bit of help.

I have come to terms with the fact that I will al­ways have my ill­ness. I have to ac­cept it is a part of life, like hav­ing a vi­ta­min de­fi­ciency.

The wolf will al­ways be there, I just have to learn to keep him at bay, If the wolf has come to pay you a visit dur­ing these hor­ri­ble times, just remember, there are al­ways peo­ple to talk to and give sup­port. You’re not alone.

‘‘ THE TRUTH IS I’M AFRAID BE­CAUSE OF THE STIGMA, BE­CAUSE OF THE TABOO.”

By MATT BUTTERWORT­H, re­gional man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Mul­lenLowe MENA

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