OK NOT OK: MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Mental health issues pervade the design world. Tom May speaks to the creatives trying to resolve this
Imagine you were in a car accident and had to spend time recovering in hospital. You’d expect your friends and family to rally around, and your employer to cover your workload while you convalesce. Your colleagues would send flowers and sign a card, relatives would help out with the kids. It would be an unpleasant experience, for sure, but at least you could count on everyone to do the right thing.
Contrast that with a scenario in which you suffered a serious mental health problem. Now things get a bit muddier. The remedies would not be so obvious or straightforward; in fact, you might not know what to do at all. When you try to explain your problem to people, they may not understand. They may even be unsympathetic. Or perhaps you wouldn’t tell anyone at all, and just keep trying to soldier on.
If this were the case, you wouldn’t be alone. Poor mental health affects half of all working people in the UK, according to a recent survey of 44,000 people carried out by the mental health charity Mind. Only half of those who’ve experienced problems with stress, anxiety or low mood have talked to their employer about it. And a recent poll by the Institute of Directors revealed that fewer than one in five firms offered mental health training for managers.
Although there’s no hard data on mental health problems in the design profession, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that many suffer from anxiety, depression and the like. And that’s not surprising, believes
Sara Lopez, a graduate designer in London who — following her own negative experiences with mental health services — has developed a self-assessment kit called Mindnosis to help people figure out the kind of assistance they need.
“I believe as designers we have certain sensitivity and empathy that makes us more vulnerable to mental health issues,” she says. “We often see our creative selves struggling to fit into strict patterns driven by productivity and profitability. Social media, while it has a good side, can also have a bad influence on our wellbeing when it creates unnecessary expectations of living other lives, and being a different person. Combining that with deadlines and pressures that may affect our personal life can be damaging to the point of burnout.”
Jessica Christina, a graphic designer working for an agency in Jakarta, Indonesia, tells a typical story for those first entering the industry. While at university studying communication design, she experienced significant anxiety issues caused by imposter syndrome. “In a nutshell, it was the fear of being not good enough,” she says. “Whenever the lecturer was about to present my work to everyone, even though it was for constructive feedback, the anticipation of hearing that criticism was driving me crazy. I was used to the individualistic nature of high school, and wasn’t really used to the collaborative system in design school where everyone could see my work and comment on it.”
The problem continued when she started her first job. “The creative director saw me as an ‘entitled millennial’,” she explains. “Plus I was a women and from a minority, so I had it pretty rough. The creative director didn’t care about my feelings of anxiety, and brushed them off, assuming I could just ‘get over it’. After dealing with this shit all day, I found I just couldn’t switch off in the evening and forget about my day job. Eventually, the environment became so toxic, I handed in my resignation. Now things are much better; I work at a branding agency in a job I enjoy, and I’ve kept the anxiety and self-doubt somewhat under control.”
While Christina found her line manager dismissive when she spoke up, others don’t even get that far. Matt C Stokes, a designer and illustrator based in Brighton, struggled with anxiety and low mood for years without ever being able to tell anyone at his workplace.
Eventually, things came to a head. “It was getting quite bad,” he recalls. “I was worrying about things a lot, and it was affecting my day-to-day life and work. So I went to see my GP, and I was referred to a wellbeing service and did CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), which helped me think differently about things.”
“I’M SO CRITICAL ABOUT DESIGN ALL DAY, AND THEN AT HOME, I’M OVERLY CRITICAL ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF MY LIFE. MATT C STOKES, DESIGNER AND ILLUSTRATOR
That included thinking differently about how he approached his design work. “Things can go immediately to DEFCON 1 in my mind,” he explains. “And I realised I was immediately catastrophising things if I got a load of emails and suddenly something new had to be done. I was going through the worst-case scenario, disproportionally so.”
Going through CBT helped to alleviate this trigger. “Recently I’ve been able to compartmentalise a bit more,” he says. “So now if I get a bunch of emails about something then I can tell myself: ‘I don’t need to read them yet, there’s other stuff I need to get done first’. So I’m getting much better at just dealing with the day-to-day.”
He’s also been able to take a step back and consider how other aspects of working in design can affect his mood. “In this profession, we get into this habit of being ever so critical about everything,” he points out. “And I don’t think it helps, because I’m so critical about design all day, and then at home, I’m overly critical about other aspects of my life. Consequently, it’s so easy to become anxious about everything, and then you don’t stop thinking about it.”
Stokes continues to seek help for his mental health challenges, but he’s still not told anyone at his company about them. “I recently got promoted to line manager,” he explains. “So I didn’t really want to mention that I’ve been referred to a psychiatrist!”
He makes it clear, though, while he hasn’t spoken to his employer, he’s not ashamed to open up about his challenges in general, and if they end up seeing his name in this article then so be it. Indeed, he has no specific reason for doubting his employer would respond positively. “Everyone’s different, I guess. I’ve just decided not to bring it up at work.”
Others, however, report positive experiences when they’ve opened up in the workplace about their mental health problems, including Ollie Aplin, a designer based in Brighton.
He had a major mental breakdown less than a year into his first freelance contract, when he was working in a three-person studio, essentially as its fourth team member. “They completely understood and were really cool about it,” he says. “They were like: ‘if you want to come in and you just want to chat, we can do that. Or if you just want to stay at home and work, you can do that. Or if you just don’t want to do anything, you want to just chat to us in a couple of months, or whenever you feel better. We won’t find someone else and we’ll just wait until you’re ready.’ They were just totally supportive.”
Aplin’s experience is a telling one, and worth examining in some detail as it reflects precisely how complex and varied mental health issues can be, and how cause-and-effect is not always what it might seem.
Aplin had a difficult childhood. “My mum was bipolar and that led to a chaotic home environment, and I had panic attacks and anxiety issues as a result,” he explains. He became keenly focused on becoming a designer from the age of 14, and his determination to succeed in this was essentially a coping mechanism. “I would have latched on to anything, purely because I just needed a goal; a carrot to focus on,” he explains. “I could battle through all the madness at home, because I had this objective, this bigger goal in my life to focus on.”
When Aplin was at university, his mother died. “But I didn’t allow myself to pause or breathe,” he recalls. “I’d been on this path to becoming a designer for so long that I couldn’t let her dying take me off the path.” Then around nine months after he got his first freelance gig, and two years after his mum’s death, he had a breakdown.
“I stopped functioning,” he recalls. “3am in the morning, I just sat bolt upright, having the most intense panic attack I’ve ever experienced,” says Aplin. “And it didn’t shift, it didn’t dissipate. It lasted for about three months and I was in a complete state. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t do anything.”
But rather than being triggered by difficulties at work, Aplin believes his breakdown was caused by everything going well. “It was just something in
“THE WAY I WAS WORKING WASN’T MAKING ME HAPPY. I HAD THIS MOMENT WHERE I COULD CONSCIOUSLY GO, ‘WHAT DO I ACTUALLY WANT?’” OLLIE APLIN, GRAPHIC DESIGNER
my subconscious that said: ‘You’re now ready to deal with this stuff, from the past. Everything else is secure. You’re in a stable relationship, you’re in your own house, you’ve got money saved up. You’re in the best place to go ‘pop’.”
About a year later, Aplin came out of therapy and returned to work with relish. “I was more fired-up than ever,” he recalls. “I moved to Brighton, started freelancing for every agency I could, tried to climb the ranks, dabbled in side projects — it was just work, work, work, let’s really go for it.”
Then around six years later, at 29, he had another breakdown. “It was nowhere near as intense as before, but it was another moment of: ‘What the fuck am I doing?’” he recalls. “Being a designer and the way I was working wasn’t making me happy. I had this moment where I could consciously go, ‘What do I actually want?’”
This led to Aplin halting his fulltime freelancing to launch his own product, MindJournal, a therapeutic journal for men, filled with questions, prompts and techniques he learned from his own experience.
Launching MindJournal has been a rewarding experience, and helped Aplin turn all his experiences into something positive and helpful to people. But his second breakdown points to an uncomfortable truth; that it’s not just struggling youngsters trying to make their way in the design world who can suffer from mental health problems. Success, at least success on paper, can be the cause of stress, anxiety and depression too.
One successful CEO who’s been open about his mental health struggles is Radim Malinic, designer and founder of London design agency Brand Nu. On the face of it, Malinic was a shining example of professional achievement. But as he puts it: “This is an industry full of glory hunters, where people look strong and brave — but we all break underneath.”
Four years ago his agency, which is organised on a system of scalable freelancers, was a commercial and critical success. But behind the scenes, he was putting in 18-hour days, and swiftly burning himself out.
“I was trying to please clients on various continents simultaneously,” he explains. “So I’d start speaking to Australians at midnight on Sunday, then I’d carry on with London clients and then pick up projects from North America. I was working every waking hour of every waking day.”
While others may have collapsed with exhaustion, adrenaline kept
him fuelled. “When you try to build a business, it’s exhilarating because people like what you do, people pay you and it keeps you busy, so your dopamine’s going crazy,” he explains. “And that is serious: dopamine addiction is quite something.”
Like any addiction, though, you end up paying for it in some way or another. And in Malinic’s case, it was the loss of anything people would normally consider ‘a life’.
“I was more than enjoying the work; I loved and adored it every day with a passion,” he recalls. “But I didn’t go out that much, I didn’t exercise as much as I needed to, I didn’t drink enough water and was over-caffeinated.”
But in a spiralling situation, he wasn’t fully aware of that. “I would wake up, I wouldn’t feel that well, but I would just get a coffee or whatever and just keep going. I would work past midnight, which is a lot of hours.”
Eventually, he had a breakdown. “One day I just couldn’t walk down the street. It was so hard. I was having a panic attack on my way to a post office and they kept on coming for a while. I was like: ‘What is going on?’”
But facing up to things was tough. “You feel like the loneliest person in the world, even though I’d been with my girlfriend, now my wife, for a few years then, and she’s since been one of the key components of my healing.”
Malinic was referred for behavioural therapy, and says he’s learned a lot about himself since. “I’ve learned that it’s not problems in my current present, it’s problems that are deeply rooted in my childhood and upbringing,” he says. “And the reality is that you don’t go to therapy to get rid of the fears and anxieties forever. It’s more about: how do we manage, how do we deal with it?”
Part of dealing with it has involved a new attitude to design work. “Part of my burnout and why I was working all the time was, you’re never finished as a designer,” he says. “So if you’ve got any amount of time on any particular day you can easily go on forever. And I was always trying to outdo myself, partly because of feedback from social media. If I didn’t get praise, or I didn’t have enough followers, I was like: ‘Why is someone more popular than I am?’ It was a very foolish thing to do in retrospect.”
He’s since taken up meditation, but the biggest turning point, he says, was when his wife bought him a dog, and he started to take it for long walks with his phone turned off. “And after doing that for a year and a half, I feel like a different person,” he says.
“I DIDN’T GO OUT, I DIDN’T EXERCISE AS MUCH AS I NEEDED TO. I DIDN’T DRINK ENOUGH WATER AND WAS OVER-CAFFEINATED.” RADIM MALINIC, DESIGNER AND BRAND NU CEO
He’s also made big changes in his working life, allowing him to achieve a better work-life balance. He hasn’t needed to drop clients or take on less work, he stresses; it’s all been about approaching work with a new attitude and finding ways to be more efficient.
He’s collected together all his advice and tips in this area in the Book of Ideas series. Offering advice on everything from inbox control to beating creative block, illustrated with some of his most important and resonant portfolio projects, it’s all about “finding a better way of working that’s more enjoyable,” he says. “Every designer would say they do this because it makes them happy, but it’s not always the case.”
So what can these stories tell us about mental health in the design world?
Firstly, that it’s a real issue, with serious consequences, and not something that can be treated lightly or dismissed with a few empty clichés about ‘positive thinking’. And secondly, that everybody is different, and the causes and symptoms of mental health problems are varied, complex and often unclear — even to the person experiencing them. Their issues may largely be rooted in work, but they may equally be unrelated, so it’s important not to presume.
And that’s perhaps the most important lesson; that talking is almost always the key to addressing people’s mental health challenges. And so, collectively working to create an open environment where people feel comfortable talking about their problems is the most important thing that colleagues and managers can do.
Depending on the size of the organisation, it can help to have a specific policy on mental health that spells this out. One organisation to do just that is 3Sixty, a digital agency based in Bristol. And as founder Jon Waring explains, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good business.
“We’ve created an environment that is supportive of people with mental health challenges,” says Waring. “But really, that’s only a byproduct of designing a workplace that brings out the best in people.”
As part of the policy, employees are free to take a ‘personal day’ or work from home whenever they need to. “I much more care about output than I do personal hours,” Waring explains. “There is a rather damaging aspect to all industries, not just ours, where unless you look productive, people assume you’re not. I just think that’s toxic, especially in a creative environment. You don’t get your best ideas sat in front of a screen in a studio all the time. So for me, I don’t care how you get it done. I trust you: you’re an adult, you’re good at your job. You decide the hours you keep, the places you work from. Whatever it takes to get the job done is fine by me.”
And whenever anyone needs to talk, that’s encouraged too. “We have a fairly candid conversational environment here, and I think people feel safe enough to discuss or disclose stuff that they perhaps might not in a normal environment,” says Waring. “In particular, one of our staff discovered some time ago that actually being vocal about her mental health challenges helps — and retaining it and suppressing has the reverse effect — so that’s definitely something we encourage.
“In design, there is that notion of continuing to work hard and improving all the time, which often comes with a cost. It is great to have ambition and feel challenged at times, but be careful not to fall into a constant loop. Working long hours, being stressed and not having time to reflect is damaging in the long run.”
Aware of this, Lopez recently joined Uscreates, a service design agency focusing on health and wellbeing. “They are an example of promoting good mental health,” she says. “Part of their mission is to make it a brilliant place to work by including things like flexible working, personal budgets for development and social activities. These are simple measures that can make a real difference in the workspace and, particularly in the design field, help make it a safer space to grow and improve your work, by taking care of your wellbeing.”
Above: Designer Sara Lopez worked with charities, social enterprises and individuals to develop an easy-to-use mental health self-assessment kit, as pictured below.
Above: Jessica Christina didn’t always get the support she needed for her anxiety issues.
Above: Ollie Alpin’s MindJournal is aimed at men seeking to optimise their days, increase their life satisfaction and change their lives.
Above: Radim Malinic’s Book of Ideas includes a whole section on mindfulness and mental health, based on his own personal experiences.