Conversation Starter: Freelancing and Mental Health

It’s national Time to Talk Day here in Ireland and the people at Green Ribbon are encouraging everyone to start conversations and begin to loosen the dialogue surrounding mental health issues. I was all set to share a really insightful piece I read recently about freelancing with depression, thinking that posting this to my work page would be a fair contribution to the cause.

I’m uncomfortable knowing that this was an easy way for me to sidestep the whole point of the Green Ribbon Project and make it look as though I’m actively adding to the conversation. In reality, I’m painfully unprepared to pick at the scab of my own situation and the fear of being dissected by the snowflake trolls is the reason why my Medium account lies dormant and drafts go unpublished. Writing has always felt like a secret refuge where I can dissect and process the things I keep most hidden. Meanwhile, my attempts to channel personal reactions to mental illness through my photography have been disastrous at best. A shallow attempt at documenting a bout of social phobia led to being called a talentless wanker in a Broadsheet comment section; I wouldn’t recommend it.

My initial attraction to photography, film, writing and creativity in general was the escapism it offered. I could control a world where things could be neat and perfect and clean and cleared of the complexities of my own life. I get to rewrite how I want the world to be- it’s literally the highest form of avoidance I have in my arsenal. In reality, any environment where I can hide and escape is ideal for me to avoid confrontation and feelings of being trapped. My camera serves as the perfect tool of escapism, for hiding in plain sight.

In a similar vein, this is why assisting photographers and working behind the scenes was always so attractive to me. I can be right in the middle of the action, but it’s not about me, it’s about the ‘thing’; the story, the production, the art piece, the film — whatever. Being on set is honestly where I feel happiest. I’m an eternal outsider so having a sense of belonging or being part of something- particularly something creative- is an unparalleled feeling.

Moving away from assisting and venturing further into self-employment has dealt me with another stumbling block, where my struggles with mental illness become exposed. Meetings, self-promotion and the all-round ‘openness’ required of a present day freelancer is a massively stress inducing experience at times. Again, this is regularly met with criticism from the Notions Brigade, and advice to “just get a real job”. Here is where the the crossroads of freelancing and mental well being collide.

This two-pronged stigma obviously does nothing to help either situation, with pressure not to be perceived as a snowflake, particularly one that’s melting. There’s also a strong perception that recovery from mental health is linear; quite often it seems people are only comfortable opening up about mental health when it’s spoken about in the past tense after it’s been processed and tidily packaged, ready for consumption. It’s as though mental illness is not as contagious once it’s safely in the past and although it’s great for people to share their experiences openly after the fact, there’s an undercurrent of pressure that tells people this illness can’t come back.

There’s been some relief in seeing that many creatives and freelancers are struggling to make things work in Dublin. We’re all faced with the death grip of our so-called recovery; whatever jeering gets lobbed over the wall at our generation, it is a difficult environment to operate in. Short-term work contracts, financial vulnerability and unregulated rental costs are standard obstacles whether you function with a clean bill of mental health or not. Adding mental illness to the mix causes a multitude of complexities to everyday life. Anxiety, guilt and worthlessness make getting through an average day feel like wading through treacle.

This is where the benefits of freelancing can offer a way of maintaining a sense of purpose and contribution outside of the regular 9–5 structure. Work hours can be carved out around low moods or days when a shower is the pinnacle of achievement. Working from home can be beneficial if you’re having trouble leaving the house. Similarly, we’re at a point in time now where you can work for people you will never meet or speak to, which can work out great if anxiety and social phobia impede traditional workplace interactions.

It’s fair to say that the freelancing lifestyle needs monitoring too. Working from home can be great at times; it’s cheaper than having to pay for a studio or desk space but isolation can be detrimental and it does need to be offset with real engagement and social interaction. It’s something to remain cognisant of when working remotely or with clients in different timezones. Generally speaking, you can set your own boundaries and expectations based on your anxiety levels and knowing what’s safe or what works for you. I understand that all this may sound outrageous to some people, but trust me, using this flexible approach is far more beneficial than me working a ‘normal’ job for six months, having a meltdown and being out of action for a year.

So, if today is about starting a conversation, I don’t think just one is enough. We need to start a conversation about how we facilitate mental well being and how we can best integrate it as part of a daily routine. Right now, our society isn’t structurally equipped to facilitate any kind of nuance in circumstances. It’s far easier for people to be categorised into cut and dry sectors; the grey area of sometimes being too sick to work or look after yourself properly and having a ‘weird’ job on top of that relegates you to an in-between existence.

We need to start a conversation about how our health and welfare system can work in tandem with people who are ‘sick’ but ‘not sick enough’. A brief intervention to re-calibrate surely serves everyone involved better than a complete pendulum swing of 0 to 100. We need to start a conversation that includes everyone and eradicates this idea that people with mental health issues aren’t contributing, functioning members of society.

It’s ridiculous to assume that these issues exist in isolation; all are exacerbated by behavioural, historical and environmental factors. In a wider context, anyone with mental health difficulties should feel safe enough to reach out without the fear of stigmatisation or victimisation. This issue permeates every level of our society and the real conversations have only just begun. Let’s make an effort to keep talking.