„The Stigma Is Real!“

Zoe runs the courageous and brave project Anxiety Empire. There she explores the discourse surrounding mental health in the creative industry. We talked about taboos, strategies and change.  


How does the taboo around mental health express itself?

In silence. In not being spoken about. People will have their own reasons, but for me the underlying reason for the taboo is because of fear; a fear of being seen as ‘less’ – less capable at work, less able in relationships, less ‘good’ as a person. Which of course is not true, but when you can’t see peers, or bosses or mentors being open about difficulties with their mental health then you can feel alone and this fear can take hold.


Whats your experience with mental health in in a work environment?

Alongside Anxiety Empire I freelance as a Senior Creative for advertising and design agencies. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve started being open about my mental health at work – I have depression and social anxiety, and so social things like presenting in front of large groups of people, or going for after work drinks, or even leaving the office if people are gathered out front – they can all be very challenging for me and give me panic attacks. But I’ve found that being open about the things that trigger problems for me has reduced the pressure to ‘conform to the norm’. Taking ownership of what I can’t do, and communicating this, allows me to focus on doing what I can do, and I have more energy to do that well rather than expending energy in anxiety over the things I can’t do. So one example is that I now I decline invites to work drinks, but explain the reason why – instead I now make more effort to spend time with people one on one, so that I still get enough social engagement. Another example would be that lots of agencies like to have lots of people from all departments in creative reviews, but I’ll now ask to just present to the key people, rather than have these large meetings. My experience (so far) has been that actually no one seems to mind these changes – so long as I am doing my job well (the concept and copywriting) then people don’t seem to mind if I need to do it a little differently.

What motivated you to start your blog?

While working in an agency which was having a pretty negative impact on my mental health I had the idea to set up a kind of non-profit consultancy to help employers in the creative industry make their workplaces more inclusive for people with mental health issues… because it’s not that I think employers don’t want to create better environments and structures to support their staff’s mental health, I just think they don’t have the time or knowledge as to how to begin or what to implement. But to get started, and see if there was any interest in such a service, Instagram felt like the easiest place to begin talking about mental health in the creative industry. After a few weeks of posting (@anxietyempire) I got my first enquiry from an ad agency about doing a workshop for them, so then I had to hurry up and make the website, and as part of that I started the blog as I would like the discussion around mental health in our industry to include lots of different people’s perspectives and experiences.


What’s the reaction of people when you reach out to them?

The reaction of people who I’ve contacted has been really positive and supportive, with most people saying how much they think it is needed. But that doesn’t mean everyone I’ve asked has said yes to writing on the blog – some have said they don’t feel able to be open about their mental health because of their (senior or famous) position and they don’t want their mental health issues to be known about by their colleagues, other people have said that they just aren’t ready in themselves to talk about their mental health. People have the choice of writing anonymously, which is just a reflection of real life – the stigma is real!


How will this topic develop in the future?

Anxiety Empire is launching something aimed at the UK creative industry, which I’m hoping will raise awareness about mental health in the workplace … it’ll be launched in a few weeks!

In terms of interviews, we have some really interesting people coming up. We also have guest writers and people taking a ‘creative approach’ to the interview format, which will be fun. Anyone reading this who works in the creative industry and would like to talk mental health, get in touch! On the ‘doing’ side of things, Anxiety Empire, which is a non-profit, is available to give talks and workshops for companies in the creative industry. All profits are donated to mental health charities and projects in UK and Germany. Our business strategist (who also her own experience of mental health difficulties – she has bipolar) can work with employers to provide tailored planning and advice as to how to make their workplace more inclusive for people who experience mental health issues.

Is talking about mental health a micro trend?

I’m reminded of the quote “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’’. And, in most ‘western’ cultures, capitalism has brought with it widening gaps in inequality, rising pressure to ‘succeed’ at school, rising levels of debt, rising rents, reduced job stability, and a valuing of ‘success’ in external measures… the list goes on… none of these things appear to be a micro-trend, however much we hope they might be. And in such a climate it’s no wonder the number of people suffering with their mental health is increasing, so I think the fact more people are talking about mental health is long overdue.

There are hereditary factors to mental health, but the society in which we live plays a huge role. The World Health Organization now list depression as the world’s biggest illness, so the sooner the stigma around mental health can be dismantled, the sooner we can face this reality in which we find ourselves (1 in 4 of us will experience problems with our mental health), and work to bring about changes in the structures of our society – from schools to the workplace and beyond – in how we live our lives.


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