How Ruby Tandoh and Leah Pritchard created a zine for wellbeing
Celebrated journalist and food connoisseur Ruby Tandoh and musician partner Leah Pritchard have curated Do What You Want, a 150 page zine comprised of interviews, articles and illustrations exploring mental wellbeing. So far they’ve raised £11,000, and all profits will be donated to selected mental health charities – a wise and necessary move amids the ongoing repercussions of NHS mental health services.
One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Yet the overarching tendency to remain hush-hush in the face of it has allowed the topic to become taboo and the sufferers stigmatised. Do What You Want offers a refreshingly authentic and forward-facing insight into the complex world of mental illness, one that’s accepting of the intricacies and nuances that go with it.
Keen to find out more, we chatted to Ruby and Leah to get the full debriefing.
What’s the inspiration behind the project name Do What You Want?
Ruby: “Do what you want” is something both of us use as a shorthand for taking back a bit of control in our lives. So on days when your mental health is really bad, or you’ve got a tonne of work to do, or nothing seems to be going right, you let yourself have that five minutes outside, or that Mars bar, or that scream into your pillow that you desperately need. It’s just reclaiming a bit of autonomy in tiny little ways.
What prompted you to start a project exploring mental health?
R: Both of us have experienced mental health problems at various points in the past and we wanted to do something to raise money for mental health charities (including Mind and Beat) – selling a t-shirt or putting on event, whatever. We wanted to do something that was not just about the money but would share people’s stories as well.
Why do you think there is an ongoing stigma around mental health?
R: I think it’s tricky, there’s still this idea that mental health problems are some kind of weakness that you can think your way out of – which is obviously not the case. If people continue to view mental illness in a negative light and don’t give sufferers sufficient care I think there will still be that stigma.
It’s true, what did you think of the Stormzy interview on Channel 4 where he talks about his depression?
R: Yeah I have he’s very good, very brave for coming forward like that.
Which areas of mental health will your zine touch upon?
R: It’s really broad actually, the first piece that went online last week was on The FADER, that was about borderline personality disorder from a black female perspective and how the healthcare system treats you. We’ve also got stuff about how eating disorders can affect you regardless of age, gender, race, size. We wanted to make sure it was broad enough so that anyone reading it would be able to relate to something in there.
How did you manage to get all the writers on board?
R: We were really lucky as Leah’s worked in music journalism, and I work as a writer, so we had this network of friends and colleagues which was a great resource. But not everybody in there is a professional writer, which was actually really refreshing. People who’d responded to our call outs wrote us these really candid, interesting, thoughtful essays on their personal experience and that was really good to see.
I guess it’s quite cathartic for people to write about it…
R: Yeah definitely. There was one writer, whose mum was from Somalia and who had mental health problems. This girl wrote about her relationship with her mum and how the mental health care system dealt with her. In the process of writing it, she’s actually become closer to her mum again.
Given that social media is such a force nowadays, how do you feel it interacts with mental health?
R: I think there are ways in which the internet and social media provide a platform for people to talk openly about mental health illness. You can connect with a community of people who have the same problems as you, who talk about treatment and allow you to be really open. I think that’s a really good thing. However, obviously like anything that becomes really widespread and becomes just part of the lingo, there’s always a chance it’s going to be trivialised. For instance, it’s a great thing that more people understand anxiety now but with that comes a kind of minimising of what that really means. It’s easy to throw around that term and that undermines the reality of someone who suffers it badly.
I graduated from university last year and was surprised by how prevalent anxiety and depression were and how rare it was for people to come forward and talk about it.
R: For sure, since you can’t see the illness and if people can’t prove themselves by being really fucking ill then they quite often feel like they don’t deserve people’s sympathy – which is a real bind for me. People go years and years without seeking treatment…
I agree, and then there’s this belief that people with depression need to just ‘pull themselves together’...
R: Yeah, because even though people are starting to learn a lot more about depression there’s still very little-to-nada on how to help someone when they say “I’m depressed”.
What are you hoping readers get out of the zine?
R: We wanted to make sure we broadened the face of mental illness. Quite often there’s this view that mental illness is the preserve of quite privileged middle class white people and obviously that is just not the case. Also, we wanted to give a window into mental health for people who don’t necessarily come into contact with sufferers. We wanted the zine to be accessible to young people as well as mums and dads who only vaguely know what depression is.
Have you both written for the zine?
R: Yeah, so I’ve written a little about mental health and exercise. Also I’ve written up a couple interviews with other people about their mental health problems to do with cuts to the NHS and how that’s affected the care that people can receive.
Leah: I wrote about my experience of CPTSD which is complex post-traumatic stress disorder which, for me, manifests as a lot of childhood fears. Like fears of monsters and fears of bodies and things like that – which I still have to this day. Also an interview with a Sheffield-based counsellor about the benefits of counselling and its limitations, i.e. who can access counselling, since it isn’t accessible to a lot of people because of things like money, or where they grew up etc.
It’s also interesting to see how race, class and gender play into the ways mental illness is perceived…
R: For sure. That’s something we looked into a lot with eating disorders, we have loads of women of colour, we’ve got non-binary people, we’ve got trans people and all these people have very different manifestations of their particular eating disorder. I mean lots of them don’t fit that stereotype, you might look at them and see a fat person, for instance, but obviously it’s ridiculous as there’s no correlation between what size you are, what gender or race you are and how real your eating disorder is.
I see your zine as a good eye opener to some, as well as a source of comfort to a degree for others.
R: Yeah definitely, because we’ve got such a range of writers, I’m hoping there’s something in there that reflects most people’s experiences. You know the essays in there for the most part are really personal, people have given so much of themselves in their stories and I hope that people react well to that.
Do What You Want will ship no later than 28 April 2017. Pre-order it here.