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The Wolf on my Back – Matt Butterworth’s personal take on depression, Covid-19 and the creative industries

By Matt Butterworth, managing director of MullenLowe MENA

I know a wolf. He is living in the woods and has been for more than 17 years, but I know full well he is going to come back to terrorise me at some point. He will make me feel vulnerable and helpless, he will scare the life out of me. When he gets close, I will go into hiding in a deep dark place where he can’t see me; it’s the only way I can protect myself from this horrible cruel monster.

Today as we come out of Covid-19, there are going to be a lot more wolves in the woods. The main psychological impact to date has been the elevated rates of stress or anxiety. But as new measures and impacts are introduced – especially quarantine and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful addictions, self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise.

I was asked to write this article on depression and the links to Covid-19, but in particular the effect on the creative industry.

Make no mistake, this article is without doubt the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I am opening up my vulnerabilities and weaknesses that put me at risk of the wolf coming back and doing some serious damage. I wonder: what if my clients perceive me differently, what if my colleagues who read this see me as weak when I need to be strong? But I need to speak out.

Fellow agency people take note. Our sector has a big issue. People who work in the creative industry are three times more likely to experience issues with mental health and wellbeing than the general population. Last year, Ulster University researchers interviewed 574 people and found 36 per cent had been diagnosed with anxiety, 32 per cent with depression and 60 per cent had, at some point, considered suicidal thoughts.

Peter McBride, of charity Inspire, which commissioned the research, told the BBC that people who are creative are likely to be more in touch with their feelings. “That can mean they sometimes experience things differently or more deeply than other people; that’s part of their craft,” he said.

There’s no denying that agency life can be stressful. Working tireless creative hours to get to the final stages of a pitch, to be told you lost it because your creative didn’t hit the mark or your strategy was too advanced is devastating.

And what do we do? Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and then throw everything we have into trying to win another one, only for it to happen again two weeks later. It’s mental torture at its highest and we have no real coping strategies.

I had a mental breakdown in early 2003, and I suffer from severe bouts of depression from time to time. Worst of all, I don’t know why. If we meet you would never know; I am told I have great energy, I always have a half-full rather than half-empty attitude to life.

I have a relatively successful career, with two beautiful children and a wife I adore. I have a job I love. I did travel the world (before Covid). I am a person who should never be depressed; there are far more people in the world that have a reason to be sad, anxious and vulnerable, especially at a time of global crisis.

And yet, despite all of this, without warning I can feel like the loneliest person on the planet. It is a horrible crushing black hole of pain that is never-ending. I am also a proud man. I believe it’s important my children and colleagues see me as a role model and a strong support, so being weak and vulnerable is not an option.

I have learned over the years to understand that the wolf will be with me for the rest of my life and there is nothing I can really do about it. For others it may be very different and they will have coping strategies. What’s right for one person is very different for someone else.

Today I’m quite good at being open with people about mental health, although I am still cautious on the information I give away. When I am entering my dark phase, I am conscious of it and often will try and deflect it by pretending the wolf isn’t coming. And sometimes that will trigger me at the right moment to say and do the right thing. My wife has been the rock that never judges me. She listens and encourages me to be open.

All I can say to every person in this industry is: it’s always benefitted me to be open. I can’t in all honesty say it will benefit everyone. The truth is I’m afraid because of the stigma, because of the taboo, because of the discrimination that does sometimes exist. It could be worse for some people. If all of us could somehow make the leap together to be more open, then the ill and the non-ill alike would be better off.

So I plead with you, if you can’t cope, even if you’re struggling or feeling overwhelmed, reach out and talk. There are some wonderful organisations and professionals you can talk to, and one thing I can promise you is you are never alone.

I am proud of that fact that, working for MCN, the group has come into its own, especially with mental wellbeing. They have provided weekly webinars for all employees about how to cope with anxieties and managing situations when you emotionally struggle – from the emotional wellbeing of homeschooling to the basics such as eating well and staying fit.

With everything that is happening in the world, our mental wellbeing is being tested to the limit. We are part of a creative industry that also is more susceptible to mental illness. Now is the time more than ever before to reach out to our colleagues, friends and family and recognise the changes we see in their behaviour, the mood swings, the subdued energy, the anger. And, just maybe, realise that they aren’t being difficult or a pain. They could be suffering and in need of a little bit of help.

I have come to terms with the fact that I will always have my illness. I have to accept it is a part of life, like having a vitamin deficiency.

The wolf will always be there, I just have to learn to keep him at bay, If the wolf has come to pay you a visit during these horrible times, just remember, there are always people to talk to and give support. You’re not alone.