February 20, 2012

don't be afriad to talk about mental health alien postcardStephen Collins illustrated the comic strips you might have seen recently on social media or in the press. Here, he blogs about what it was like to work on the Time to Talk campaign:

Somebody asked me recently why I don't do political cartoons. I had a think. I didn't know. But I've thought a bit more, and now I do know. The reason I don't do political cartoons is that the things that are really wrong with the world, that really make me angry and need lampooning, aren't politicians. It's not powerful individuals who need bringing down a peg or two. It's bad ideas. 

Admittedly, politicians are responsible for believing in a lot of bad ideas. But they're not the real problem. The problem is the assumptions that underlie the world, that we all absorb without even realising it.

One of the most damaging ideas I can see is the idea of 'Normal'. And under this banner falls the idea that a mental health problem is not a 'normal' (ie physical) health problem.

I'm lucky enough not to have been touched by mental health problems in the past, but friends I know who have had depression have often said that the worst thing is not being able to talk about it in the same way that you might a 'physical' condition. Mental illness is not considered by most people to be the same as 'normal' illness, and both sufferers and non-sufferers often find it difficult to talk about it as such.

The roots of this idea aren't particularly evil. The world has long laboured under the strange, quasi-religious notion that the 'mental' is in some ways distinct from the 'physical', as if our brains are some sort of mystical landscape distinct from our bodies. It's a vain and reassuring belief that tells us we're more than just walking lumps of meat. As such it's quite understandable - I for one have always fancied myself as something more than a massive bearded pork chop with legs(!).

don't be afriad to talk about mental health postcard

But the overall consequence of this idea for people who have mental health problems is that their condition is often treated as in some way 'unreal'. Something spiritual, or 'emotional'. Just recently I spoke to a friend whose employer behaved as if their time off with depression was some kind of fantastic indulgence, and that they probably shouldn't expect to get such a nice holiday again. No wonder people find it hard to talk about.

The Dare advertising agency first approached me in November to join the creative process on the Time To Change mental health awareness campaign. The idea of the ads was that they'd try and knock a few corners off this massive ideological chunk of stigma, and maybe get people talking about mental health on a casual, day-to-day basis.

I was really impressed with how they'd handled the job in the past. The previous campaign's TV ads had managed to make funny, thought-provoking sketches from a really sensitive issue by using well-judged, perfectly-acted comedy. This isn't an easy thing to do at all: humour in advertising is always a tricky thing to get right, but when your campaign is a subject as serious as mental health stigma, it becomes something of a massively tricky festival of trickiness. 

My part of the commission was to do a series of cartoon strips and two-panel postcards to supplement the campaign. The strips were written in-house by the creative team at Dare media in consultation with Time To Change, and it was a real pleasure to work with people who'd written the comics so well.  I was pleased to find I could contribute some ideas to the design of the strips and how best to present the humour. Dare then asked me to write some extra two-frame cartoons from scratch, showing how mental health shouldn't be scary to talk about. I eventually came up with a series of postcard cartoons that contrasted everyday 'easy' conversations about mental health with genuinely 'scary' conversations, such as a guy asking King Kong to give him his girlfriend back, or trying to persuade aggressive aliens to go home.

It is a fairly subtle change the ads are trying to make, but a massively important one. In trying to nudge people's social habits towards something more constructive and less taboo-supporting, this campaign is a step on the road toward a more respectful, healthy attitude to mental health issues. An attitude that would be, dare I say it, a bit more 'normal'.

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