Let’s Talk on World Mental Health Day

Sophie de Rosée

Sophie de Rosée on the difficult first step that must be taken to overcome mental illness – vocalising it

10 October 2018 11:14

With mental illness there exists a very fragile moment between feeling that something isn’t quite right and vocalising, for the first time, that you might need to talk to someone about it. For many suffering from depression and anxiety, finding the courage and the words to voice this experience can take years. Denial and feelings of shame can be very powerful and clever, self-preserving functions of mental ill-health. It can feel safer not to talk.

‘What I would say about all mental illnesses,’ says journalist and author Bryony Gordon, ‘is that they lie to you, tell you you’re a freak, tell you you’re alone, tell you nobody is going to understand what you’re talking about. Mental illness works much in the same way as an abuser. It isolates you, it wants you inside your own head, it does not want you outside talking to people about this stuff because then there is a road to getting over it. It thrives on the darkness and the shame.’

Bryony is one of 17 faces to appear in Let’s Talk, the new London exhibition and mental health campaign launched in time for World Mental Health Day by photographer Charlie Clift and lettering artist Kate Forrester, both of whom have been personally touched by the consequences of mental illness. It’s perfectly timed for World Mental Health Day today, but also to meet the spreading curiosity about how it feels and what it means to have depression, anxiety, OCD, suicidal thoughts.

Bryony Gordon

Photographer: Charlie Clift; Lettering artist: Kate Forrester

What began 18 months ago as Charlie’s personal project, with an open call on social media for volunteers, quickly snowballed into a national campaign for which Charlie interviewed 17 individuals about their very personal experiences of mental health difficulties. Among these are Alastair Campbell, Anna Richardson, Sue Perkins and Jordan Stephens. From each interview, Charlie and Kate then picked out words and phrases which they felt best explained each person’s experience. On the day of the photoshoot, Kate spent a couple of hours hand-lettering these words onto each person’s face.

Some of their most difficult and poignant thoughts are writ large on their faces for the world to see.

Bryony’s face reads: ‘You feel like you’re the worst person in the world. The only thing to do is drink again. Alone. Torture.’

On Oli: ‘It feels like y ou’re drowning and you can’t get to the surface to breathe.’

On Jordan: ‘I punish myself judge myself. The biggest hindrance is shame. It’s ridiculous. I am ridiculous.’

On Emily: ‘I was very lonely. Very lost. I was vacant, there was nothing behind the eyes.’

On Anna: ‘Deep panic. I feel utterly lost.’

On Sue: ‘Everything is raging. It feels like I’m dying. My blood is hot. something awful is going to happen.’


Photographer: Charlie Clift; Lettering artist: Kate Forrester

The result is very moving, arresting and at times shocking. It’s hard to marry the kind face with the dark, terrible thoughts that you wouldn’t normally be privy to. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate according to age, gender, background or professional success. It affects anyone and everyone. Common feelings include panic, flatness, shame, loss of control, self-hatred and guilt.

Statistically, in England alone, every year, one-in-four people will suffer with mental ill-health. What would be interesting (and impossible) to know is how many people experience mental illness, but don’t yet realise or haven’t yet spoken up about it. Given the current stigma surrounding mental illness, could the truth be closer to double that figure?

According to NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Mental Health, Professor Tim Kendall, ‘Across the globe, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 300 million people suffer from depression, and many of these people also suffer from symptoms of anxiety. Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. And for many people around the world, the burden of stigma, shame and discrimination that comes with mental ill-health multiplies the problem they already face.’

It took a long time for Charlie, now 31, to acknowledge the mental health problems he was having, which resulted in him dropping out of Bristol University for a year.

‘It’s quite easy to hide your difficulties in some way or form,’ he says. ‘For me I’m a very outgoing extrovert person and when I started to get depressed I went out much less. I’d stay inside my house most of the time and I just stopped doing a lot of the things I had been doing. And none of those was really a deliberate decision, it happened slowly. It was only when other people around me noticed the change that I started to realise something was very wrong and this wasn’t the way things should be, this wasn’t who I was.’

Charlie was lucky. His supportive family, friends and a university tutor listened when he felt able to talk about his struggle with depression. During this time, living back in his family home in Devon, his parents gave him a camera, which provided the impetus he needed to get out of the house and began on the road to recovery.

Alastair Campbell

Photographer: Charlie Clift; Lettering artist: Kate Forrester

The Let’s Talk campaign has partnered with Mental Health UK, who contributed to the ‘Get Help’ section of the website, and the Samaritans’ telephone number is printed on each photograph for anyone in need of support.

The overwhelming message of the exhibition – how the sole act of talking can save lives – is echoed by Lucy. ‘Talking has helped me so much. Being accepted for the whole of me (including mental health problems) is really empowering. It removes some of the shame attached to my low moods when others love and care for me regardless… The advice I would give someone suffering would be: talk, talk, talk. Find a therapist, keep trying different ones until you find the right one for you. Don’t be put off.’

Anna, who has suffered with anxiety and depression, agrees, ‘Without question, talking has helped me. In fact, I’d say that it has probably saved my life… I’m excited that this project is so visible. It’s national and hopefully, by everybody seeing it in the UK, it will encourage more people to speak up, speak out about any kind of suffering and go and get the help they need.’ Anna co-founded Mindbox, the first self-funded online therapy service in the UK to offer immediate 24-hour access to therapists, and is hugely passionate about raising the conversation around mental health.

As is Alastair Campbell, whose face reads: ‘I feel panicky. Alone. It’s more intense than sadness. Not all bad. They must hear the voices. I was hearing voices, music bells. Total paranoia. I’m a happy depressive. you feel dead inside and dead outside. A heavy weight.’

‘On a really bad day – and it’s far from every day – I think, “I don’t really want to be here”,’ explains Alastair putting words to his experience of depression. ‘I feel sad, but with an intensity that goes beyond feeling sad. I feel both dead and alive. I am conscious of being alive, awake, breathing, needing to eat – but I am numb. The pain is almost physical. It’s not all bad – my resilience comes from my depression. It’s helped me withstand a lot of pressure, from social media or wherever, and now I care about what matters and care little about what doesn’t. I have bouts of creativity that come out of my depression.’

‘I hope that these pictures make people realise that they’re not alone; that many other people have these difficulties as well.’

It is fitting that photography sparked Charlie’s journey out of a very dark period. He now lives in London and juggles personal projects alongside editorial work for the Sunday Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, BAFTA and the Observer Food Monthly, among others. Let’s Talk is Charlie’s most personal project, a way of using photography to help others with mental health difficulties to find a way out for themselves, by talking.

‘I hope that these pictures make people realise that a lot of the thoughts and feelings they have are quite similar to the things they are reading on other people’s faces here; that they’re not alone; that many other people have these difficulties as well. I know from my own experience of making the project that I’ve found it surprising and helpful for me to hear other people having similar problems to those I’ve been through. It makes me realise I’m not abnormal. I’m not weird. It’s very common.’

On this World Mental Health Day, as Sue rightly says, ‘Don’t bottle it up. Don’t keep it in. Don’t ever be ashamed. Let’s talk.’

Let’s Talk, the free outdoor exhibition, will be on display until 22 October in Regent’s Place, 338 Euston Road, London, thanks to the support of British Land. From there it will travel to Broadgate and Paddington Central. For more details visit www.letstalkcampaign.com, where you can also find information on how and where to get help.