Matt Haig, best-selling author of How to Stop Time and Reasons to Stay Alive, talks about his latest release, Notes on a Nervous Planet, in this engaging and hopeful discussion about living with mental illness in the modern world. Chaired by Richard Holloway.
In the follow-up to Reasons to Stay Alive, Haig once again talks about living with anxiety and depression; this time speculating in the wider context of our technologically advanced, fast-paced world. He believes that technology impacts every facet of our daily lives and is responsible for the exponential rise in the number of people suffering with anxiety and depression, explaining that we’re ”old hardware trying to function in a world with new software.”
Haig feels that it’s empowering for a sufferer to understand where their feelings are coming from, and he skilfully relates his own experience of living with anxiety and depression to the audience, his self-deprecating humour provoking appreciative laughter from the audience. He believes that modern technology deliberately creates a disconnect between people, largely cultivated by companies who serve to drive the population towards addiction to their devices. Whether through our phones, games, computers, e-readers, or fit-bits; we’re constantly provided with more and more opportunity to ‘connect’ through screens; rather than face-to-face. And in doing so, we become increasingly dependent on these technologies to show us our value and so we continue to exist in ever-shrinking worlds. If we’re constantly being measured, compared and told we can be doing better; we’re always going to be looking for the next thing that can help us improve – and tech companies know it.
It’s this disconnect which nurtures a state of anxiety and depression, according to Haig. He pointed out that the Aborigines have the worst record of mental illness in the world; correlating this with the colonialism, racism, and horrific loss of identity and sense of purpose they endure. When asked what he fears most in our ever-advancing world, Haig admits his concern that “we are in danger of losing our empathy”. He continued on this thread, raising the issue of online trolling, which he believes is incredibly damaging to our mental health and needs to be recognised as a health issue. He called for action from the public to raise awareness; as only then will our government take action against companies who aren’t regulating their tech and protecting their consumers.
In keeping with the tone of his new title, Haig was authentic and optimistic when asked about labels and mental illness, identifying that relief that can come with a diagnosis – relating that it can make you feel like you belong, and also make it easier to explain how your illness affects you. However he was quick to caution over-use, or familiarity with any label, given that the connotations can be heavy. After his years of self-taught mindfulness, he wisely advised that “diagnosis isn’t a life-sentence: you aren’t in a permanent state.” Reminding and perhaps galvanising the audience, to believe in the power of the self, and not of the machine.
Vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation and author of two new children’s books; She Persisted and She Persisted Around the World, Chelsea Clinton shares the stories of twenty-six inspiring women who changed history across the globe. Chaired by Carol Wood, Board Director at Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Clinton is introduced as a passionate advocate for empowering young people to bring about positive change to the world, determined to close the gap in learning and literacy in poverty. In her opening remarks, Clinton told the audience of the greatest inspirations in her own life. “My Maternal Grandmother and my Mom were enduring examples of persistence, grit and determination. These qualities were crucial to their lives and identities.”
Qualities which are shared with the twenty-six women in the book, all of whom “Rose up, spoke up, and persisted.” Those included in its pages, such as Marie Curie, Sissi, and Virginia Apgar, had to overcome their various adversities in order to succeed. They changed the world for the better and their legacies live on. Many of these women are activists, for civil rights, mental health, disability and education. Nelly Bly, Ruby Bridges and Malaka Yousafzai all feature as an example to children to not give up on their dreams. “I hope you believe in being free to make your own choice. All of these women did and the world is all the better for it”. More than this, Clinton hopes that the book will “close the imagination gap – for girls and boys alike.”
Clinton went on to talk about growing up in the public eye, as the daughter of a president, and the expectations that brought. “I think it’s important to have high expectations of yourself.” Whilst acknowledging her privileged life, with “access to great schools, never worrying about a roof over my head or food on my table”, she brought the idea back to her experience at school, saying “a really great teacher will help you figure out how to make a difference.” She advised the young audience that “persistence is never losing sight of the why and the what – the how I can adapt.”
When the inevitable question finally came, from a young girl in the audience, “Will you become President of the USA?” Clinton’s inner politician clicked into action as she advised any budding leaders of what questions they must ask themselves in such a position. “Can I do a better job? Am I the best person?” However the answer, thankfully, did come. “I am not the best person to undo the damage that’s been done. I will do what I can – which for me is to be a teacher, author and to support political candidates.” In the style of a true politician, she paused to look determinedly out at the young audience, before delivering her final, pitch-perfect response. “But it’s a question we must repeatedly ask ourselves.”
Overall an inspiring event, with much for children and adults alike, however, a live-reading of a section of the book may have been more geared towards the kids in the audience, who may have struggled with the more in-depth elements of the discussion.
My latest writings, and thoughts on disability, mental health and young-adult lit.