Mental health self-help guides tend to be dull, so I created a...

Mental health self-help guides tend to be dull, so I created a vibrant zine | Andy Walton

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I have struggled with anxiety, particularly overthinking, for a number of years. I’ve had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and taken medication – and I’ve collected a lot of self-help literature.

I’ve found most of this material dull and lengthy, and if you have mental health issues, you might struggle with the motivation and concentration to read it. As a mental health nurse, I also noticed there were few resources for service users that were empowering or pleasing to the eye. There was a lot of stereotyping, with pictures of clouds, people frowning or sitting with their head in their hands. I wanted to create something that could take on those associations.

Last year, a number of zines around mental health were published, such as Doll Hospital Journal and Anxy. They were all aesthetically pleasing and empowering, doing their bit to strip down stigma – but many of them focused on very personal stories. I wanted to produce something similar that was more of a guide, to condense all the information from lengthy self-help books into something concise.

The result is Swirl – a vibrant, 20-page booklet that provides straightforward wisdom around overcoming overthinking. It is digestible and accessible.

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‘I wanted to create something that people would be proud to have on their coffee table.’ Photograph: Swirlzine

I worked for nine months to get the wording as succinct as possible. It was a hard task. I wanted to make it conversational and move away from jargon. The words “mental health” don’t appear until the last page.

The content is psychological, evidence-based advice led by CBT techniques. It depicts the worry tree and the stress vulnerability bucket to help readers manage and rationalise their thoughts, and be in the here and now. I sent it to colleagues and peers past and present for their input; mental health advocates in the UK and the US; clinical psychologists in the NHS; and occupational therapists at Combat Stress, a charity that helps military veterans with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, where I work in the outreach team. I asked people who have struggled with anxiety if they thought it would work for them: is there anything you disagree with, anything you’d add or take away?

I also wanted to make the guide stand out. With a lot of mental health literature, I feel like you want to hide it away if someone visits. You don’t feel drawn to it or motivated to pick it up. I wanted to create something as striking as possible that people would be proud to have on their coffee table. Everyone can struggle with mental health; it’s not just one thing, it involves a spectrum of emotions. That’s what I’ve tried to get across with the mix of colours.

I’ve been lucky to work with some talented people. I worked with Gina Yu, a writer and marketer based in Atlanta, who helped with the stylistic elements. The illustrations were created by Nate Kitch and I had numerous conversations with the printers – Ex Why Zed – to make sure the paper was just so; I wanted the paper quality of Swirl to be conducive to helping people relax.

If you wake up in the middle of the night with your mind swirling with thoughts, my hope is that you can pick up Swirl and that it will soothe you, help you feel a bit more in control, bring you back to the here and now. It’s something you could read on the bus on your way to work that will give you the positive mindset that you are in control of your thoughts.

I also want to create a Swirl community and make Newcastle more of a place where people can talk about mental health, so I’m going to work with the New Bridge Project to run group sessions on managing worry. I’ve seen the power of group conversations to help veterans feel less alone and isolated.

I started work on the zine last summer, but I feel it’s been 20 years in the making – I started struggling with anxiety when I was about 15 and I’ve learned to deal with it through talking therapies, reading materials and learning what works for me. All the wording and advice in Swirl has come from the heart. My brain has been digesting these things over the years, and now I feel I’m in a good place to provide advice and make mental health part of everyday conversation. Everyone can struggle with anxiety. You might look for a complex fix, but sometimes it’s the simple things that help you get back on track.

  • Andy Walton is a community mental health nurse based in Newcastle. Swirl is available to buy online for £6 via Big Cartel

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