Authors’ mental health MOT

Authors’ mental health MOT

The Christmas decorations are down, the tin of Quality Street is empty and now I’m planning my author goals for the year. These include a resolution to take a regular MOT of my mental health, something that is easily forgotten in the ups and downs of the publishing business. 

No pension, sick pay, job security or paid holidays – who’d be an author? Joking aside, whether you have a pre-existing mental health condition or not the publishing business can detrimentally affect writers’ mental health, however much they love their work. 

In a conversation with other authors a number of issues came up, including mental health being an almost taboo topic to talk about. With writers’ incomes dependent on securing their next contract, one author said “while the trend of celebrities, secure in their high castles, to ‘"come out" about mental health is to be applauded, most authors, all too aware of their vulnerability in the scheme of things, will keep their heads down”. This is for fear of rocking the boat and jeopardising their career.

Summing up the group’s majority opinion were the words of one author: “I find the stresses of being a writer are all about the publishing side of it—the constant worrying about whether anyone will read/like the book, whether I’ll get another deal etc, and the uncertainty is hard to live with.”

What do the authors I spoke to recommend to reduce that uncertainty? “Publishers should be mindful about their role in the scheme of things," said one, wishing for clear and frequent communication with agents and publishers to reduce anxiety. This was backed up by a different author: “being ghosted by both publisher and agent on occasion has made me seriously consider self-publishing in future in order to wrestle back some control”.

The reason for this lack of communication, one writer conjectured, was that publishers/agents may worry about how authors could react to news and try to hide things in order to "protect" them. However: ‘”The effect may be the opposite of what they wanted to achieve with the silence and lack of communication causing worry and frustration … I think more openness and trust with sharing all news and being realistic about expectations for a book might be more helpful and create a better trusting relationship.” Someone else added: “The assumption is if they’re not telling you anything then it must be bad news. We’re grown-ups, we can handle it. Communicate!”

Of course we mustn’t forget that agents and publishers too have their own mental health needs and communication works both ways. That’s why having a great, mutually trusting relationship with agents and publishers where you can both discuss these issues is so important. 

The writing part of the business can be very beneficial to mental health. Some authors told me that it was for them, with one saying: “It’s my me-time, the place where I go to get away from everyone, including myself.” What can we do to keep that benefit but protect our overall mental health? 

Dr Philippa East recommends strategies for authors to take, saying that most authors’ anxiety comes from uncertainty. As well as being a practicing chartered clinical psychologist she is a successful thriller writer: her first novel Little White Lies was shortlisted for the CWA’s John Creasey (New Blood) Award in 2020 and her second, Safe And Sound, is out now. 

“Although writing can often be a form of therapy, or at the very least a free and creative space in which to play, explore and escape the problems of day-to-day life, the realities of being a published or professional author can be highly taxing,” she told me. Uncertainty, lack of control, self-esteem and comparisons with other authors are key challenges in the industry. 

She suggests not being afraid to ask questions of your agent, editor and writing peers but also recognising that “some things are just inherently uncertain … choose to believe in a positive result, rather than a negative one”. Writing as good a book as you can is your responsibility but the marketing, sales and distribution aren’t. 

I joined Dr East’s ‘Don’t Look, Don’t Cry’ club where we pledge NOT to read our reviews. “Because we are so biased towards the negative, it is very hard to read our reviews in an unbiased way,” she points out, with us remembering the one star on Amazon or Goodreads and not the five-star reviews. “Reviews aren’t lions. It’s quite safe to simply walk away from them,” she states, and personally I find that not looking frees up more time for me to actually write. 

The ’Don’t Compare, Don’t Cry’ brigade is another that authors can benefit from joining. It’s so easy to look at your contemporaries and only see those who have won awards or scored Sunday Times bestsellers. Dr East, however, suggests comparing down, remembering how hard you worked to get published and how many people don’t make it. “There will always be people who have had bigger successes than you but there will also be people (millions of them, actually) who have had none of the successes you’ve had”.

One author I spoke to commented that maybe anxiety and depression are overlooked in the profession because they are stereotypical characteristics of "creatives". “Forget this myth,” says East. “Being a professional writer is like any other job: if we are unwell, we are not going to be at our best … writing often involves diving deep into our emotions, our experiences, our creative souls. It’s essential that we are fit and well enough to take that journey."

So this year I’ll be taking a break from social media if I’m feeling overwhelmed, not reading reviews or comparing myself to others, and working on building strong, trusting relationships with colleagues.

For more information about mental health, Dr East recommends these two resources:

SoA guide to health

CBT self help guides

Penny Batchelor is the author of two psychological thrillers: My Perfect Sister and Her New Best Friend. She champions positive disability representation in fiction. Along with E C Scullion, Penny is the co-founder and editor of the Thriller Women blog which publishes interviews with female thriller writers.