Young Scot Chats with Matt Haig

Thanks to the folks at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Young Scot were lucky enough to speak to best-selling author Matt Haig about social media, mental health and more.

Haig wrote 'Reasons To Stay Alive' a memoir that takes an honest look at his experiences with mental health that went on to become the 2nd best-selling non-fiction book of 2016.

YS: Your new book is called ‘How To Stop Time’ - which would be an amazing super power to have in every day life! So I was wondering, if [you could] gift Scotland’s young people with a superpower, what would it be?

Matt:  I think that one thing [I would] give my teenage self, would be to just realise that a lot of things that you are worried about, aren’t worth worrying about. Just have fun! Have a life perspective, if that makes sense, to understand that a lot of things that I’m consuming now are very very temporary. I was so self conscious about so many things, what I looked like, how I was doing at school, whether I was too posh for my school at that time… all kinds of things you get hung up on when you are younger, because it’s a very intense time. [I’d like to] just to have the gift to see it into a happy point in your own future.

YS: Your book ‘The Humans’ looks at the life of an alien trying to blend in to human society. Are there times in your life where you’ve felt almost alien-like trying to fit in, and is there any advice you would give to young people who feel that they don’t fit in anywhere?

Matt: Yeah, totally. The Humans came out of my experience dealing with depression and anxiety so I feel that quite literally makes you feel like an alien in terms of feeling completely removed from conversations relating to you. There’s no single trick you can do when you are in that state to feel like you fit in, [but] what I didn’t understand is how many people are also feeling like that. There are millions of people who feel like they are invisibly ill or have invisibly troubled lives – that no one is really seeing what they are going through. That was the comfort for me 'cause at the time I felt, when I was ill in 1999, like I was the only person who had felt [the way] I was feeling and obviously there are millions of people who feel like that. Just knowing that and being aware of that, yes this is intense and feels terrible and overwhelming, but so many people have felt like that in the past, or feel like that currently, is quite comforting.

YS: You are very open on social media – but it can be both a good and a difficult place in terms of mental health. How do you balance it? What are your thoughts around that for teenagers?

Matt: I think we need to have a more, generally I don’t like the word, but a more ‘mindful’ way of using social media because just the act of sitting down [and] staring at a screen all day long isn’t a physically healthy or mentally healthy thing to do anyway. And I think the problem is now there is more chance of us comparing ourselves to other people. Some places like Instagram are worse for that because we are designed to know about 100-150 people in real life -  that is a small portion to compare ourselves to –  but [now we] compare ourselves to the very best of 7 billion people. I think [we need] just a bit more awareness of what reality is and know when you are looking at filtered supermodels or people who are getting a million likes for sharing their breakfast, [to] know that’s not normal. And also even for those people, they might be having their own invisible troubles and problems they aren’t showing – it’s very easy to judge your insides against someone else’s outsides.

YS: Lots of young people follow world events on social media. Sometimes the news just now can be very dark and can feel overwhelming. How do you find the balance of both engaging and caring about the world, but also protecting your own wellbeing?

Matt: Well, I’m probably the worst person to ask ‘cause I’m not necessarily great at that… but I’m writing about it at the moment actually in my new book called ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’. I think we’ve got to realise that having the constant stream of news and having to feel like we’ve got to stay up-to-date, not just on a day to day basis, but on an hourly or half hourly basis on world events – that’s not helpful for anybody. It’s not helpful for us 'cause it makes us feel worse, [it adds] more stress on our minds in a stressed out world. It’s totally fine to step away from media because the most dangerous thing, especially for young people, is bad mental health. So, doing things that are detrimental to your mental health in order to make the world better isn’t productive.

YS: The Scottish Youth Parliament recently did their own research on mental health and young people and they called their report ‘Our generations epidemic’ – would you agree?

Matt: Yeah, I think so! A lot of people will say how people are being diagnosed more, but that’s only a tiny part of it! Everyone would agree that things like sleep, alcohol, diet can have some effects on your mental health – those things are cultural. So you know, the idea that mental health is somehow innate and just totally to do with brain chemistry, that it’s just given to you by genetics, is wrong cause physical health isn’t like that either.

YS: What are the things that give you hope?

Matt: Well I have children which is always a good source of hope! So I’m always hopeful about that! I think, going back to the news thing, we focus on the negative but there are so many good things going on. I generally believe, more than ever actually, that most people are mostly good. And I think there is bad in all of us but I think most of us want to be good, and I think the things that are happening in the world have actually awoken a desire to do good and change the world in a positive way in people. So my hope is that, as with my experience with depression, out of badness can come light.

YS: What is coming up for you over the next couple of months?

Matt: I’ve got a new children’s book coming out in October, the last of the three Christmas books I’ve been writing, so this [one is called] ‘Father Christmas and Me’. And then I’m writing sort of a sequel to ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’. It’s a book about mental health – it’s slightly less autobiographical and  more about looking at the world and all the things about the world which are sort of triggers, for good or bad, in terms of mental health.

YS: We've just run a campaign about the first week back at school for young people in Scotland, asking adults to say to young people what school taught you. So what did school teach you?

Matt: I had a mixed experience at school, so it depends, I think secondary school was hard for me. I think what shapes you more than what you are actually learning [are] the friendships you make at school. I wish I could actually go back and learn more knowledge from school 'cause on a day to day basis I was largely more worried about fitting in, and you know, being the class clown etc. But I’m very thankful that I had teachers that got me into reading and, eventually, writing.  If you asked me ten years ago I’d have terrible memories but now, in perspective of my life, there’s a lot of things that I do owe a debt to – especially some teachers.

For more information on staying safe on social media, check out our DigiAye campaign.