‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z from Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given’, by Natasha Devon, published by Bluebird: Books for Life, is out now in all good bookshops priced from £7.50

Where's Your Head At?

3rd August 2018

Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon MBE is a campaigner who tours schools, universities and events throughout the UK to raise awareness and teach others about mental health. She writes regularly for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph and produces a weekly column for The Times Educational Supplement. She’s a tv and radio regular, was Cosmopolitan Ultimate Woman of the Year 2012, and in 2015 the Sunday Times and Debretts named her one of the 500 most influential people in Britain. Her first book has just been published. Lisa Botwright finds out more…

She’s been called a mixed-race mongrel, an immigrant-loving ****, a feminist hag and, my particular favourite, someone with only ‘a with sad collection of politically correct luvvies’ following her ‘rubbish posts’. (I follow her; I’ve never been called a politically correct luvvie before). She’s had multiple death and rape threats. Famous for being sacked as mental health advisor to the government in 2016, she latterly invited furore for suggesting that teachers should use gender neutral language when addressing pupils.

But the woman whose views are routinely ridiculed in the media also has a huge army of fans too. She has 25,000 followers on Twitter and is adored by the students and health and education professionals she champions.
She first came across my radar back in 2016 when I was writing about the government’s drive to add ‘resilience’ to the school curriculum. Surely that had to be a good thing, I thought. And then I watched Natasha’s Ted Talk Is our society breaking children’s brains? and my naive optimism was abruptly reset. Rather than a rosy attempt to elevate children’s happiness, this new policy – according to Natasha – was a fudged and misguided attempt to whitewash the lack of funding in children’s mental health, and to railroad already over-stretched teachers into taking responsibility for a mental health crisis that should more accurately be attributed to the politicians themselves.

“Imagine if you visited a town where every fourth person has a broken leg,” begins her talk (which is well worth a watch on YouTube), continuing satirically: “What kind of person would you need to be to say… ‘well they just need to make their legs more resilient!’…?”

She’s now written a book – a ‘call to action’ – that aims to lift the lid on mental health issues, and to bring compassion to an aspect of modern life where people still feel unable or unwilling to admit to a problem until it escalates beyond their control. ‘The message emanating [from society],’ she writes, ‘is that life is unchangingly harsh and fast-paced, and fortune favours people who can deal; so stop moaning, because there are always people worse off than you’.

She argues that while statistically, one in three people will struggle with their mental wellbeing in a way that can be medically diagnosed, three in three people have a head with a brain in it and therefore ‘exist somewhere within a spectrum of mental health’. Her goal is ultimately to make our social mental-health model more closely resemble its physical counterpart.

The book itself is a very readable combination of evidence-based research, reflecting Natasha’s access to leading mental health experts – mixed with personal anecdotes, including her own experiences with anxiety, and the stories she hears every day from the young people her work brings her in contact with. It’s divided into chapters from A for Anxiety to Z for Zero f**ks Given (teen-speak for having high self-esteem). I found it funny and compassionate – but also full of frustration and anger, often aimed at certain right wing politicians. (Michael Gove, for example, is known as Michael-Sodding-Gove in her house.)

Natasha tells me, “I wanted the book to be in the same format as the talks I do in schools – to blend my own personal experience of mental illness with science and practical tips which the reader can apply to their own lives. The most difficult aspects of writing were making sure that the book was something anyone with any level of knowledge could pick up and trying to tread that line between not assuming reader knowledge and not patronising them. In the end, I just wrote the sort of book I’d like to read.”

As well as an overview on the different facets of mental ill-health, the book also addresses her sacking (…strap yourself in, reader, for what follows is the inside scoop, the goss, the truth…), and newspaper headlines in which her views on supporting transgender children (a shocking 48% of transgender people have attempted to take their own life, she writes) were taken out of context and amplified mockingly across the press.
With the amount of vilification she gets from certain quarters, I ask if she ever feels like giving up and stepping away from the spotlight? 

“I’ve nearly said ‘sod it’ so many times!,” she admits. “But usually when I’m in this mood I get a message from someone telling me how much reading my book, or my talk in their school, or something I’ve said on tv has helped them and I realise that’s worth so much more than a thousand tweets calling me a fat feminazi by fans of Piers Morgan!”

The book also includes a chapter devoted to C: Capitalism and its direct relationship with our mental health: ‘The problem is that a genuinely contented person wants for nothing, so increasing amounts of energy, money and creativity must be poured into ensuring we’re never satisfied with what we have.’

She denies she’s a mental health ‘guru’ – a word she ‘hates ‘with the heat of a thousand burning suns’ since it suggests she ‘has the ultimate answer’; moreover, she’s at pains to deter people from ‘performing an amateur diagnosis’ based on her ‘listing various signs and symptoms’.

Her motivation simply comes from wanting to educate and to fight injustice. “I’m not wealthy, I’m not fantastically beautiful, I don’t have the things society tells me I’m supposed to aspire to, but thanks to the benevolent fate that’s allowed me to do a job that I believe helps to make things a little fairer – I am, on most days, happy.”  

Follow #WheresYourHeadAt to find out more about Natasha’s current campaign to change the law so that it would be compulsory to have mental health first aiders in work places, just as we have ‘regular’ first aiders for physical health issues.

Find Your Local