The week in audio: the best of Mental Health Awareness Week

Stations from Radio X to Jazz FM, and podcast hosts from musicians to neuroscientists delved deep into the vagaries of the human brain

Radio X Mental Health Tool Kit With the Campaign Against Living Miserably | Radio X
Mental Health Awareness Week on Jazz FM | Jazz FM
ChillDaBeats | Spotify
The Blindboy Podcast: Talking to a Neuroscientist About the Human Brain | Acast
Super Brain | Acast
How Do You Cope? With Elis and John (BBC 5 live) | BBC Sounds

It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week, and you could take your pick from a plethora of mental wellness audio. Only a couple of years ago, I had to trawl the internet to find suitable shows; ones that might bring relief to anyone with brain chatter or over-rumination or sadness or self-loathing. Not now.

On Friday, at 10.59am, 500 radio stations, from Kiss FM to Radio 4, broadcast the Mental Health Minute. The first MHM was broadcast in 2018, and included Prince William and Prince Harry, before the latter decided to go to LA to scale things up a bit with Oprah. Anyway, though the celebrity personnel change from year to year (Gaga one year, Anthony Joshua the next; Prince William has been a supporter throughout), the message of the Mental Health Minute remains consistent. It’s about connection: asking us to listen to others when they need to talk, and, if you’re suffering, summoning the courage to talk in the first place.

This, of course, has traditionally been harder for men, especially those in their early 20s and in midlife. Radio X, which has more than its fair share of such listeners, teamed up with the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm) to broadcast some short programmes for its Mental Health Tool Kit. Love Island’s Iain Stirling told a brilliantly buttock-clenching story about being overcome with anxiety while on stage at a corporate gig; Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil talked, a little detachedly, about grief and bereavement. On Jazz FM, there was an emphasis on nature and the outdoors, with a now familiar “forest sounds” accompaniment.

Music is, of course, a time-honoured cure for bad moments and difficult moods. It is a bit weird, though, to witness how much music has been forced into this box: there are umpteen different chill-out mindful mixes for mental health, including ex-Radio 1 host Phil Taggart’s ChillDaBeats (pronounced it like wildebeest) on Spotify. Taggart is a lovely presenter, and I enjoy his music selection and interviews, but the idea that only pretty, ambient music will see you through the dark days is, to me, flatly wrong. Sometimes you need a bit of Black Sabbath to sort you out. Plus, I’m not sure that Gerry and the Pacemakers’ You’ll Never Walk Alone, the opening song on ChillDaBeats’ Mental Health Special, is a song for anyone other than a Liverpool fan, if you want them to truly relax. And actually, even Liverpool fans might appreciate a break at this particular point in the football season.

The Blindboy Podcast
‘A lovely, encouraging listen’: Blindboy. Photograph: PR

The Blindboy Podcast has long been the choice of the clever and anxious listener. Blindboy, an Irish artist, writer, musician and comedian, sometimes reads out his short stories, usually talks for ages, and sometimes interviews people (his onstage interview with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is absolutely essential listening). Last week, Blindboy spoke to the neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan about the human brain. The conversation was revelatory, even for Blindboy himself, who has often talked about depression and agoraphobia and how he’s used CBT to help. Brennan discussed how the brain loves patterns, and how often the best way we can stop our brains from going into panic mode is by installing routines: patterns that help the brain relax. She doesn’t mind the use of smartphones or other devices – “I call it outsourcing my memory” – but recommends that we “harness our brain’s neuroplasticity” by learning new things or being creative. A lovely, encouraging listen.

Brennan has her own podcast, Super Brain, which isn’t bad, though she interrupts her guests a little too much for my liking. You’d be better off listening to past episodes of How Do You Cope? With Elis and John, which won UK podcast of the year at the Broadcasting Guild awards in March. It’s a completely brilliant interview show that takes in all manner of mental health difficulties, and is ideal for all ages. My main audio recommendation for anyone suffering mentally would be: choose something you like to listen to – music, documentaries, funny shows, BUT NOT NEWS – put your earphones in and go for a walk in a park. Honestly, that will always help.

Three shows about niche stuff you didn’t know was interesting

SNEAKERNOMICS

Sneakernomics
BBC Sounds
If you can get past the irritating elements – the rubbish drama interludes, the “hilarious” Bavarian oompah music, the US-centred presentation which assumes that listeners think of Germany as a far-away mythic land – this Radio 4 podcast is a fascinating history of trainers. Some aspects are familiar (the Adidas/Puma feud, the Run DMC My Adidas story), but every tale is fully fleshed out with some brilliant “did you know” facts, such as why plimsolls are called plimsolls. Host Nicholas Smith has extensive knowledge, having written a book about the subject. Some fun and oomph is provided by 1Xtra’s Ace, who tickles the conversation into contemporary pop culture. Recommended.

Unclassified’s Elizabeth Alker.
Unclassified’s Elizabeth Alker. Photograph: BBC Radio 3

Unclassified: African and Ambient
BBC Sounds

This Radio 3 strand is both gently traditional (it sometimes asks artists to choose a track in its “listening chair”) and gently experimental. Presenter Elizabeth Alker is cheery and relatable, if sometimes a little close to the mic; producer Frank Palmer has extensive 6 Music/Radio 3 experience, and the music is always worth a listen. African and Ambient, broadcast last Thursday night, gave us the brilliant KMRU, from Kenya, who uses field recordings in his compositions, as well as exploring how African music has influenced celebrated ambient artists from the west, such as Steve Reich.

99% Invisible

99% Invisible
99percentinvisible.org
This podcast is the non plus ultra of “niche stuff you didn’t know was interesting” shows. I rarely mention it because I assume you know it already, but if you don’t, dive into the deepest, diverse-est show out there. Last week’s edition wondered why techno is the preferred musical choice of Berlin (“The music is penetrating you,” says one clubber); the week before, Abandoned Ships examined the weird world of cargo ships and their crew. The one before that, Curb Cuts, told us why curbs (kerbs in UK English) slope down to the road on corners. The company behind the show has just been sold to satellite radio company SiriusXM, so I hope that founder Roman Mars has made some money. He deserves it.

Contributor

Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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