Matt Haig on Mental Health and Having Faith In Your Future Self
When author Matt Haig was 24 years old — struggling with depression and anxiety — he fully intended to end his life by walking off a cliff in Ibiza. Fortunately, one step away from his death, he stopped. What followed over 15 years later was his best-selling book in 2015, Reasons to Stay Alive, documenting his journey back from the brink of an emotional breakdown. The response to his candid account propelled him into the international spotlight where he’s become an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness and a reassuring voice for those battling their darkest days that good days do indeed lie ahead.
We recently spoke to Haig ahead of the release of his newest book, a novel called The Midnight Library, about mental health stigma, perseverance, and having faith.
1. You’ve been so honest about your struggles with mental health, including your suicide attempt several years ago. Where did you find the courage to be so open about your experience with depression?
It took me years to get here. For a decade only my parents and partner knew. But then I wrote a little one off blog about it, and it had the warmest response, and that gave me the confidence to write about it in greater depth. It felt like a great release to take all this stuff that had been trapped inside, and let it into the light.
2. Your first book, Reasons to Stay Alive, hit a cultural nerve. Why do you think it resonated so deeply?
I don’t know. I just tried to be as honest as possible. I think people were ready to have the conversation, and the book arrived at the right time for people to read something that was very direct and head on. I wanted to make visible something that is often invisible, but in a very accessible way, and I think people appreciated that.
3. Many men, in particular, still feel uncomfortable being vulnerable about their mental health. What’s your message to men specifically about mental health?
There is no shame in mental health. We all have mental health. And occasionally our health goes wrong. There is no type of person who gets mentally ill. Mental illness impairs astronauts, boxers, soldiers, world leaders, teachers, truck drivers, rock stars. It is not weakness. In fact, I became stronger than ever through the experience and through recovery. As men, from an early age, we are encouraged to be ashamed of any vulnerability, and to ‘man up’ – which tends to mean ‘shut up’. This ultimately does no-one any favours. Most suicide victims around the world are male, and most of them haven’t visited a doctor about their mental health issues. The shame of being depressed exacerbates symptoms, so it is very important that men—and everybody—feel no shame when talking about their mental health. Our illness is something we experience. It is not something we are. We can stand in a hurricane and that hurricane can be intense and life-threatening, but we always know we aren’t the hurricane.
4. It’s an extremely difficult time for so many right now — depression and anxiety are widespread. What do you say to those who are currently struggling with feelings of despair and isolation? What would have been helpful to hear when you were at your lowest and how do you manage your depression today?
The thing to have faith in is change. Uncertainty may be a source of anxiety, but also of hope. Bad times become better times, and there are other versions of ourselves waiting for us in the future.
This excerpt was featured in the October 11, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.