Matt Haig: ‘I kept thinking, can’t my own mental health advice help me?’

The author on being known for his depression memoir, the dangers of social media, and Winnie-the-Pooh

Matt Haig is a writer of novels and nonfiction books for children and adults, including The Humans and How To Stop Time. He is also the author of Reasons to Stay Alive, a bestselling memoir about his descent into depression, aged 24, and his subsequent efforts to climb out of it. His new book, Notes on a Nervous Planet (Canongate, £12.99), explores how to stay sane in our fast-moving, anxiety-inducing world.

Why did you decide to return to the subject of depression in Notes on a Nervous Planet?
Not wanting to be nauseatingly name-dropping, Stephen Fry warned me after Reasons to Stay Alive not to become Mr Depression, and I thought he must know what he was talking about. So I wrote a book about Father Christmas [A Boy Called Christmas] and a novel, How to Stop Time, and tried to concentrate on other stuff. But the subject kept coming up at readers’ events. What struck me really strongly was, while we acknowledge things like alcohol or drugs can be bad for our mental health, we don’t really understand how more day-to-day stuff affects us. So I thought it might be useful to write a book placing our mental health in the context of 21st-century society.

One of the main messages in the book is we need to disconnect more from the internet for the sake of our mental health. Do you feel better when you’re disconnected?
Without a doubt. It doesn’t sound like a big deal not to have my phone by my bed, but for me, making that move was really hard. That sounds so sad, but it’s made a huge difference. I charge my phone in the kitchen now, so at least I have to come down and have my breakfast before I check emails and Facebook and Twitter. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still spend ages just scrolling through my phone, getting distracted.

Isn’t there a difference between just wasting time on social media and having your mental health affected by it?
The two things are related because sometimes you can feel really guilty and unproductive and bad about yourself if you’ve spent three hours on Twitter pointlessly. You certainly don’t feel better about yourself.

Would you say most of us are addicted to social media?
Unlike video-game addiction, social media addiction is still not a recognised thing, but I’m pretty sure one day soon it will be. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram try to get us as emotionally and psychologically invested in them as possible. And sometimes, if you just go on Twitter and passively scroll down your feed, it depends who you follow of course, it just seems like a fireball of anger. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you can find something within five minutes to be really, really cross or anxious about. And there’s a psychological fall-out from all that.

Were you surprised by the success of Reasons to Stay Alive?
Absolutely. I always saw it as a side project. I thought it would find a nice little readership among people who were struggling with their own mental health. Obviously, that’s a lot of people, but I didn’t realise there would be this big crossover readership. I found the reaction a bit overwhelming at times. I was getting lots of emails every day from people asking for advice and saying how much it had helped them, but I was in an anxiety patch myself, so I was pacing around in circles feeling a bit of a fraud. I kept thinking, why can’t my own advice help me?

Did it feel like quite a responsibility, all those people writing to ask for help?
It did, and at first I didn’t really know what to do with that. I’m not a doctor, I’ve not even been a Samaritan, and I got this sort of stage fright about my new role as a sort of Henry Kissinger of mental illness. Since then, I’ve spoken to charities like MIND, who have given me tips on how to politely tell people I’m not an expert, then refer them to people who are. You are dealing with people’s lives, so you have to be so careful.

We are talking more about mental health as a society, but do you think anything has really changed in the way we view and treat people with depression?
Most people would now say they’re OK about depression and anxiety. But certain mental health conditions have as much stigma as ever, for instance, eating disorders and self-harming. I think we still love to imagine it’s all about strength of mind and strength of character, and we do need a more subtle understanding of mental states.

What can we do to change this?
I think, boringly, the answer is money. We need more funding to raise awareness and to combat mental illness, not less. For all the government’s lovely words about mental health, it’s the first part of the NHS that they’re willing to cut. I hear about waiting times and how ill you need to be to get help. No one would think you should only get treatment for a physical illness if you’re on the point of death, whereas with mental illness they’re literally assessing how likely you are to kill yourself.

You once said that books saved your life. How did they do that?
When I became ill, back living at my parents’ house, the only books I had were the children’s books on my bedroom shelf, and I found myself reading Winnie-the-Pooh over and over again, just for the comfort of knowing the story. There was something so therapeutic about it. I’d been quite snobby up to then about books, because I did a master’s in English literature and I was encouraged to believe it was all about style. We read all these postmodernist thinkers and plot was almost a dirty word. Then I found I wanted an actual story – I wanted beginning, middle, end – because that’s what was nourishing me and I lost that pretension almost overnight. I just wanted to go back to storytelling.

• Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is published by Canongate (£12.99) on 5 July. To preorder a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Lisa O' Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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