I say this a lot: we may write alone, but everything else about hauling a book into existence is a collective endeavour. Then, when we learn that one in four people in the UK is experiencing a mental health problem at any one time, I know that this endeavour needs to be mindful of others’ vulnerabilities, because mental health problems should not be allowed to erode creativity and intellectual resource. That is how it was for me, for a long time; I have had long periods of clinical depression, generalised anxiety and dissociative episodes which relate to complex and sustained trauma over a 20-year period, beginning in early childhood.
It may be you think this is too frank; that I ought not to be writing so boldly in case others see me as unable to be professional, manage deadlines or sustain my imagination. I stand by it all. Because I can be, and I do, though it is not easy. Moreover, if I am open, this makes it easier for the next person: the writer, book publicist, commissioning editor or literary agent who is scared to speak out for fear of being seen as lesser, or as a weakling.
So let me offer some practical suggestions, drawing on my own experience and those generously shared by others.
First, I think we must establish a parity of esteem between mental health and physical health and grasp that the two intersect. I have encountered industry professionals who are sceptical about mental health conditions, just as I have met those who sneer at those who write about trauma - which attitude is predicated partly on good fortune and partly a cold lack of solicitude.
Second, it is crucial we do away with stereotypes of what someone with mental health challenges may be like. I was told firmly that I ought not to speak openly about all the work I was pursuing because it would upset other people with mental health challenges who had not managed to get published. Yet, when I spoke with the communities with which I interact, I was assured the opposite was true and that to be silenced was othering; that they were othered by the assumption that those living with mental health problems could not tolerate the energy of a writer getting published and working towards more.
My third point is that someone who is experiencing long-term mental health challenges may be very nervous about how they are presented. Put it this way: if you have had your story stolen, if you were without witness after years of frightening experience made you ill, then to have no say in your narrative could be eviscerating; thus, it is vital that open conversations are had with publisher, agent, publicist, about public domain information for an author and narratives developed around them in book publicity.
Events: point four. It is important to talk openly - author, agent, publicist, others - if an author is speaking publicly as part of an event and feels particularly nervous. That is professional; not avoidant or weak. Neither is the phrase ‘trigger warning.’ You are a team. Also, both for us and for those we wish to reach, for accessibility we should keep the momentum going with online events.
Memoir. Point five. Those who are teaching memoir or those who are commissioning memoir, non-fiction or autobiographical fiction need to be sensitive to what might emerge for the writer. Of course, I am not saying that everyone in these roles should have counselling training, but I know that open conversations ought to be had, even if it is simply the commissioning editor noting that the writer may feel emotional and that they must be reassured that their work and, in the context, life experience, will be treated with respect. With memoir workshops, someone may speak for the first time about a scarring experience to you, as teacher. It is vital that you listen: the writer is very vulnerable at that moment. Be dismissive of no-one’s story. Ever. It is your job to help them shape it into words.
Five simple points. There is much more to add, but I end here. That title; "There’s a Crack in Everything" (- it’s Leonard Cohen, if you did not know). It is true; there is. But even so, cracked as you are, do not, writers, doubt your ability to construct something meaningful and beautiful or, all other industry professionals, to bring that beautiful construction to others’ hands and lives. Because, to continue the Cohen, "There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in." What is more, brilliant creative venture, genius even, reside in mess and hurt - but only if accompanied by compassionate and open dialogue and by teamwork at its finest.
Anna Vaught is a novelist, short story writer, editor, mentor, English teacher and mental health campaigner. Her third and fourth books, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and Famished (Influx), were published in 2020.