Rachel Kelly’s memoir Black Rainbow explored the writer’s experience with depression, and the healing effects of poetry, now she wants to help others take small steps to happiness with her new book of coping skills Walking on Sunshine
Writer and journalist Rachel Kelly’s first book, Black Rainbow, a memoir of depression, explored one of the darkest periods in her life and how poetry helped her through. Her illness once presented with such intense physical symptoms, she was left bed-bound for six months. Following her recovery, she became an important advocate for mental health, and an ambassador for SANE.
Now Rachel returns to the world of publishing with Walking On Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, an illustrated collection of coping skills, snippets of literature and practical advice for positive mental health. It jumps from entries on three-step breathing techniques to quotes from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, all set to the lighthearted drawings of Jonathan Pugh. The book, she says, is not for those who are ‘very unwell’; instead it’s a gentle reflection on recovery – and what one can do to maintain it. We meet Rachel to find out more.
How did Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness come about?
Basically I’ve always kept diaries and written letters, I’ve done that all my life. After Black Rainbow came out, I started running workshops for various mental health charities; I do them for Depression Alliance and MIND. So I started working with other people who suffered from anxiety and depression and we began sharing strategies and ideas on how to keep steady and calm.
The strategies in your book are quite simple, is that intentional?
I’m a great believer in small steps – things that are doable. Sometimes I have in my mind that idea of the 5 per cent rule, which therapists talk about, and it’s basically that it’s very difficult to 100 per cent change your life. What I’ve found is that one small thing can have this slight shift, but over time, with enough small strategies, you can really begin to make a difference.
What was your attitude towards mental health like before your depression?
I think I had a huge amount to learn, the word ‘depression’ itself was misleading… I didn’t realise it was a clinical illness with very nasty symptoms. I kept quiet the first time I was ill. I thought it was something to be ashamed of. If you’ve had a lucky life – and I consider myself to have had a lucky life – it’s quite hard to admit you’ve had depression. But you wouldn’t feel guilty if you had cancer or diabetes. It’s an illness, we have to start with that.
Do your children engage with your work, and have an understanding of mental health?
I think it’s affected all of us as a family, and that would be true of lots of families. We do a lot of things together, in terms of the breathing exercises. My daughter just started secondary school, and she’s anxious, so there we were doing a three-step breathing exercise together. My older daughter brought the Black Dog campaign to her school; she’s very open about mental health.
What’s the best way to support a friend with depression?
Lower the bar. A big existential question like ‘how are you?’ is hard for anyone to answer. Ask, ‘how was that phone call? How was it trying to get up this morning?’. Shrink the scale. If you can, make it a little bit less of a drama. Break it down into small steps. It’s about de-risking and de-dramatising something. And of course, seek professional help. If someone was ill, you’d bring round a shepherd’s pie, carry a tray upstairs, empty the dishwasher. It’s not so different to anything else.
You’ve lived in Notting Hill for many years – what do you love about it?
I love Holland Park and the Japanese garden, it has a zen feel. As a general thing I’m drawn to nature, somewhere in 52 Steps I’ve got a thing about looking up – I was noticing how people are always looking down, they are hunched, walking fast for the tube. Wherever you are in the borough, just stop and look up at the sky.
Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness by Rachel Kelly with illustrations by Jonathan Pugh is out now, Short Books, £9.99, available in all good bookshops