We discuss the topic of mental health with a selection of industry insiders
This week (May 16-22) is Mental Health Awareness Week, with “relationships” as the theme. We’ll be running features all week about the mental health of those close to you, the mental health of the artists that inspire you and the different ways that communities and individuals deal with the issue. Slowly but surely, progress is being made in the ways in which we discuss a problem that affects each and every one of us.
One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and if you’re working in creative job, you’re 25 per cent more likely more likely to. Naturally, this translates to fashion – an industry that has associations not only with the ‘tortured artist’, but with long hours and low pay, drama and Devil Wears Prada-like bosses, skipping meals and no sleep. But are these associations fair? To find out, we spoke to eight people from different sectors of the industry – a designer, a photographer, a stylist, a writer, two models, a PR and a student. Here, they discuss how working in fashion has impacted their mental health, how widespread the issue is and what can be done to remedy it.
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED A MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE WHILE WORKING IN FASHION?
Designer: I have experienced anxiety and depression for a large part of my adult life. It’s something that has almost become a part of me, how I work and what I do.
Stylist: When I was fashion assistant, I had a nervous breakdown. My boss just asked me if I was okay and suddenly I burst into tears and fell on the floor. I hadn’t really slept for four days and was really overworked.
Writer: Adwoa Aboah recently said that she thinks she was born sad and I kind of relate to that. It comes in waves and isn’t debilitating but, if I’m honest, I feel like that feeling of sadness is always there. Since working in fashion I’ve become more anxious and when it’s bad, I can get quite obsessive about checking that the iron is off, or that the front door is locked. I can get quite panicky.
Male model: I’d say the effect my job has had on my mental and emotional wellbeing has been the single biggest thing I’ve had to contend with since I started modelling, three years ago. I’m not suggesting that my job or the industry itself are to blame, but they’ve played a firm hand in exacerbating existing issues.
Student: Yes. I remember even while I was doing my foundation diploma, the pressure was quite intense. I was very determined to get into Central Saint Martins. I had problems with eating and sleeping, and my emotions were all over the place. The pressure really affected me.
DO YOU THINK IT’S COMMON IN FASHION, IF SO, WHY?
Photographer: Definitely. The stresses of burning the candles from both sides – working, partying and struggling with money can easily become too much.
Stylist: Yeah, I’m sure it’s common. I’m sure most stylists or fashion assistants have experienced a mental health issue. We are constantly under a huge amount of pressure.
Writer: I do. I think there are two sides to it. Obviously, I think creative people are more likely to experience some sort of mental health issue – perhaps an active, idea-sprouting mind is also more prone to dark thoughts. I think they are more sensitive too, more affected by things. But at the same time, I think people who are predisposed to mental health issues are also drawn to the arts because it affords them the opportunity to express themselves, and to lose themselves in a world that is more beautiful and fantastical than their day-to-day reality. When you factor in the high pressure, long hours and low pay of most fashion jobs and the lifestyle of drinking and drug taking that often accompanies them, it’s not really surprising that people struggle.
“When you are a different person every day, it’s easy to lose touch with yourself” – an anonymous male model
Male model: I think the issue of mental health is probably more common in all corners of society than we’ve been raised to believe. Once you recognise it in yourself, you begin to suspect it in others (often before they do). I think the fashion industry’s reputation for “being full of cunts” is a somewhat impolite way of saying that it is full of people who have a difficult relationship with themselves.
PR: I think that mental health is widespread and not specifically just in the fashion industry. I do however, think that the pace and certain aspects of this industry could be seen as a catalyst to some mental health issues. I have met a few people that have been affected by body dysmorphia and depression due to their work.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT FASHION THAT EXACERBATES MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES? AND WHAT ABOUT IT CAN MAKE THEM BETTER?
Designer: For me personally, my work is something that has been beneficial to my illness. I started the brand at a time in my life when I couldn’t really see a future, as dramatic as that sounds, and I found daily tasks very hard. I was diagnosed with severe OCD and anxiety, which lead to depression, a good few years ago, and this affected my life massively, making anything from leaving the house to cooking meals hard. Starting the business was by no means a quick fix, or a form of therapy (I had plenty of that on the side) but it enabled me to have a purpose, a creative outlet, and a sense of achievement, which I had lost. Years later, I actually feel it enables me, in a way, in what I do. My neurotic nature and self-critical skills have forced me to excel, and do the best that I can.
Photographer: I think the right amount of pressure can be beneficial, but too much stress can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle, and change the way your mind works and your body feels. You either learn how to cope with it or burn out.
Stylist: The workload is insane and the expectations are high. But, in my own experience, it has been beneficial because I’ve had to push my limits, so now I feel very strong and able to work under pressure.
Model: In terms of what I have encountered as a model, it’s the things I’m told directly to my face. “We have one black model,” “We don’t do trans,” “People like you shouldn't be here.” I’ve developed thick skin over time, and it is still developing.
PR: The pace of the industry can be stimulating for most involved. It is a very competitive industry to work in and things move very fast – I feel that a lot of people can get affected by this negatively too.
IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR JOB SPECIFICALLY THAT MIGHT EXACERBATE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES?
Designer: The pace of the industry is hard, it provokes high-stress levels daily. I work 12-16 hour days pretty much every day. What I find personally hard is the creative pressure, the mental strain. Fashion forces you to be innovative and expressive within a schedule, which is sometimes impossible. I also think that working as a designer, it’s personal. You know, what you put out there is you. And the level of critique and competition is high. But then, that is the nature of the beast.
Writer: I remember Sarah Mower saying something about people who don’t think they ‘belong’ see things and that that’s good for writers. I kind of relate to that, which has its pros (making me a better writer, in theory), but also its cons (feeling like an outsider 90% of the time). Also, writing comes from thinking and where there’s thinking, there’s overthinking which can lead to anxiety and depression.
Model: I think any paradigm that reduces something (a person) to purely a residual image can be damaging not just for that said person but also the observer as it trains the mind to dehumanise. Also, the fast pace of fashion and the value you are given at said temporal time can make you feel disposable. Especially as a model, it can be the perfect cocktail to create a personality or an eating disorder due to the projection of a false sense of self.
“I think any paradigm that reduces something (a person) to purely a residual image can be damaging not just for that said person but also the observer as it trains the mind to dehumanise” – an anonymous model
Male model: The area in which I’ve been most negatively affected is probably my identity. I find that I am constantly editing and adapting myself to be what the client wants me to be. When you are a different person every day, it’s easy to lose touch with yourself. In my case, this disconnection from the self and consequent lack of respect for the self led me to fall into patterns of behaviour that were destructive to me and to those around me. Acting impulsively and compulsively is something that I am still learning to manage.
Student: Everything! I feel like people don’t understand how much work is involved in managing a brand. You are constantly being challenged to create something new in an industry that is so over-saturated. And at the same time, you have to deal with money problems.
WHAT COULD BE DONE TO IMPROVE THINGS?
Photographer: I think mental health should be taken seriously, people with mental health issues should be helped instead of demonised. Also, exercise and healthy eating should be prioritised. And people shouldn’t have to work crazy hours and should be paid on time so they’re not so stressed out at the end of the month when their rent is due.
Writer: I mean, it would be amazing to have an in-house shrink at work. I know it’s not realistic, but I think that working in the evenings and weekends should be discouraged. I don’t think it’s healthy for your mind to be operating at such a high level all the time. Rest and sleep are super important to mental well-being.
Male model: In relation to my line of work specifically, I can offer little in the way of solutions. I suppose the identity issues discussed could be helped by more ‘character casting’ – this may combat the age-old issue where a model is told to ‘just be yourself!’ and they haven’t the first clue how to. I think female models are subject to yet more forms of scrutiny and these could be addressed by the application of diverse casting. As for wider industry, we could all make efforts to be kinder to people we work with, people who work for us and (most importantly) to ourselves.
PR: I think things could be improved by having a more open view of mental health issues. People tend to not talk about their problems within the workplace as they are worried about how it will affect their job.
Student: I don’t know if it’s possible but I think the fashion industry should work together to educate customers about the value of design and clothing, and to challenge customers to think more about the people behind their garments. I think the situation can only be improved (or the pace can be slowed down) by making more customers believe in what we are selling.
DO YOU THINK MENTAL HEALTH IS TAKEN SERIOUSLY IN FASHION? IS THERE ENOUGH AWARENESS OR EDUCATION?
Stylist: I don’t think mental health is taken seriously at all. Unless you are unable to walk, or “throwing up your organs”, you go to work to matter what. I guess as mental health is something that can’t be really seen physically, people don’t take it seriously. The thing they don’t seem to understand is that mental illness requires more recovery time than physical illness. There is definitely not enough awareness and education.
Writer: Yes and no. In my experience, people in fashion (particularly working in an editorial capacity) are knowledgeable and sensitive about mental health issues. However, I don’t think this translates practically all the time. If someone was running on a sprained ankle everyone would be like, ‘Stop!’. But when people continue to work hard while suffering from a mental health issue, however mild, no-one really calls it out.
“The workload is insane and the expectations are high. But I’ve had to push my limits, so now I feel very strong and able to work under pressure” – an anonymous stylist
Model: I don’t think mental health is taken seriously as again it isn’t spoken about and is something that should be especially in a creative, right-brained environment where, let’s be honest, we as creatives are more susceptible to it.
PR: Mental health is taken seriously, however I think there could be more awareness and support in place. Currently, I think it is something people are embarrassed to discuss with colleagues.
Student: I think it has been seen as the norm. When I decided to study fashion at CSM, the first reaction my mum had was that I would become like McQueen who struggled with his mental health. And I do think that most of us assume that designers and artists are born to be mentally ill. But I think the truth is, we are making garments and things that we think are beautiful, it should be a really fun business.