We need to stop promoting fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) in public relations, says mental health author Matt Haig.
By Gabrielle Lane and Cicely Creswell,
As an influential voice in the mental health conversation, author Matt Haig is spreading an important message of commonality. Four years after the release of Reasons to Stay Alive, a personal reflection on Haig’s experience with depression, he has sold more than a million books in the UK, and his work has been translated into more than 40 languages.
In his latest wellbeing-inspired book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, Haig explores how to cope in a frenetic, technology-driven world that we can never seem to disengage from. His less well-known background in PR means he understands the connections between the communications industry and the tribulations of modern life.
Here, in an exclusive Influence interview, he discusses his role as a communicator and how brand messaging can affect us.
Was there a turning point when you realised it was time to communicate your experience of mental health conditions?
I suppose so. I know it seems like we’re drowning in mental health books now but Reasons to Stay Alive was one of the first non-fiction titles on the subject. I was in the right place personally; it’d been more than a decade since my really severe patch of depression and anxiety, and I felt like I could still remember it, but that there was no risk of going back there.
In terms of Notes on a Nervous Planet, I’d started to notice with my own mental health, and certainly with other people’s, how modern life – this life of fast-paced technology, of work overload, of life overload – is kind of too much for our brains and too stressful. So Notes on a Nervous Planet was trying to explore more of that.
Why are books your medium of choice?
I’ve always read a lot and as a child I wrote my own stories. I think, going back to when I was ill in my twenties, writing was a therapeutic thing for me, and it’s the medium that suits me best. If you write a book, you’ve got complete control; you feel free to do what you want. It’s collaborative in the sense that you’ve got an editor but it’s about you and your imagination, and that, to me, is very freeing.
Are there any other platforms that you’d like to explore?
I think writing will always be number one, but I’m not ruling anything else out. I was asked recently to write some song lyrics for an album. I’ve done little bits of screenwriting too, and I like radio and podcasts. A podcast, I feel, has the freedom of a book and you can have a long conversation – I think after the 20 minute mark you start to have a really natural, good conversation, and that’s exciting.
It’s eavesdropping in a nice way. I’d always come back to writing though; it just seems to be my safe space.
Both of your mental health books have got an easy-to-read, note-form structure. Why did you choose to write them in that way?
When I desperately needed something to help me, everything around back then was very academic, heavy and dense. So, with these projects, I’m constantly thinking of my younger self as the reader, which is why I use short chapters, white space and lists – nothing that looks intimidating. That’s not to say I don’t do heavy research, but I try to present it in a way that looks very accessible.
Nowadays, because we’ve got so many things competing for our attention, it’s hard to get that space to read, so it was about creating something that was just easy to dip into.
You’re asked to speak a lot about mental health. How do you feel about the role you have?
Straight after Reasons to Stay Alive, I didn’t want to write or talk about mental health again. I thought I’d put it all in the book. It was doing really well and I was getting lots of emails from people; I should have been really happy but I was just stressed out.
I’m on much better terms with it now and I’m sort of shameless about my mental health. I talk about it as if I’m talking about a cold. I really try to practise what I preach and not stigmatise myself.
With the conversation expanding, do you think we should ensure that the people communicating about mental health issues are experts?
There is a lot of talk about mental health. Everyone is on Twitter about it and I think that, generally, it’s a good thing. One in four people has some kind of mental health issue at any one time, and talking about it normalises it.
However, the way we talk about mental health is still quite stigmatising. If a celebrity shares their struggles, their story will often be presented as a ‘confession’. Then the word ‘admits’ will be used a lot. It’s very different to how we talk about physical health, where you ‘share’, rather than ‘reveal’, an experience.
I think we’ve got a long way to go and we need to differentiate between mental health and mental illness, because mental health, like physical health, is something we all have. So it’s not a one in four issue – it’s a four in four issue. Mental illness is something else.
The title of your book about anxiety is Notes on a Nervous Planet. Why do you think the world is making us nervous in 2019?
If there were one word to describe modern life, I’d say it would be ‘overload’. The rate of human evolution isn’t even close to the rate of technological evolution. However, we’re overloaded by everything, not just information on the internet. We also have a people and relationship overload in our lives, which is stretching our natural capacity.
There is something called ‘Dunbar’s number’, which is 150, and basically, if you go back in history, even up to the 18th century, most communities were of 150 people, and that’s around the number of people we’re designed to know. Now you can be on Instagram and encounter 150 new people before you’re even out of bed.
Whether it’s media, Netflix shows, news or products, we’ve got a lot of choice. There comes a point when it’s too much, we feel paralysed and we actually stop doing stuff.
For instance, in the news you’ve got every bit of negative information happening globally, and there is very little we can actually do about it as individuals. So we’ve got all this information without much control, and we crash occasionally.
You’ve said before that marketers sell fear. What role do you think public relations has played in this culture of nervousness?
When I was recovering from my illness, my girlfriend and I had our own PR company. The first books I wrote were books on marketing, including ones on the very, very early days of internet PR, so I am slightly from that world.
A lot of PR and advertising is unconscious. People don’t necessarily realise that they’re negatively affecting others. But there is an element to marketing that is conscious.
For instance, there’s an acronym they often use in America and Britain: ‘FUD’, which stands for ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’. FUD is what marketers want to instill in the audience. The industries create problems so that they can sell a solution.
Are there specific values being encouraged by brands that are having a more negative impact than others?
Yes, I think so. There’s the trend of quantifying everything. We count our steps and monitor our sleep, so everything becomes a number and measurable. We instantly begin to compare ourselves.
I took some apps off my phone – I don’t want the act of walking, or even sleeping, to suddenly become something that I have to measure.
Also, the perfectionist element in the wellness, self-care culture is played up by Instagram, but self-care can be anything. It doesn’t have to be a fancy foot massage in a spa in Thailand. It is so often about having less and switching off notifications.
How do you think brands, and specifically public relations, can help support the mental health of their target audience?
I think mental health will become more like physical health, where companies that are responsible for our health have to abide by certain guidelines and understand the impact that they’re having. The simple act of telling us we’re doing something is often enough to encourage a life edit.
I feel we’ve got to work collectively to find ways to empower people. At the moment, it’s all about making someone want something and inevitably making them feel negative if they don’t have it. We’ve got to be a bit cleverer and not always do the salesman trick of making people scared so that they buy something.
A version of this article (It’s a Fu***d Up World) was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.