In the fourteenth edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series, we spoke to journalist, blogger and LGBT and queer advocate Jake Hall. Check out our conversation below.
How are you feeling about your mental health currently?
At the minute I’m feeling good. I’m living between Sheffield and London at the minute which can definitely be stressful and Sheffield can definitely be lonely as I don’t really know many people here. I made the choice to establish a base somewhere way cheaper so I could take time out for myself and not feel overwhelmed. At the moment, it’s working.
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
Last summer. I had a housing contract that was coming to an end, so I did what I always tend to do and tried to run away. It’s a bad habit I’ve developed but I’ve tried hard to break it.
I remember just feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and eventually canceling a flight — I’m so grateful to a close friend, because she just invited me to come and stay with her for a few nights and we just talked through everything.
What mental health conditions do you have (if any) and how long have you lived with them for?
Anxiety – I can only really remember it being prevalent over the last decade or so.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
Mostly it just makes it extremely difficult to plan my days and tends to manifest in the form of relentless overthinking that leads me to make really reckless, quite self-destructive decisions.
You’re an accomplished writer and freelance journalist. Have you always been a writer or is it something you just discovered and developed organically?
I always enjoyed writing, although I never really considered it as a career choice. A lot went on in my life when I was around 16 or 17; that was when I really started to use writing as a way to organise my thoughts and take a step back from situations I knew would bring out any self-destructive tendencies. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that writing can act as a coping mechanism for me.
What topics on the mental health spectrum do you cover, if any?
I personally haven’t written about my own mental health but I write about LGBTQ issues a lot — for obvious reasons, writing about LGBTQ mental health is important to me. It’s been statistically proven we’re much more likely to struggle with mental health and I don’t think people recognise how unique factors – street harassment, familial abandonment due to identity and general everyday encounters of discrimination can really build up and destroy even the strongest queer people over time, so that’s something I’m keen to highlight.
What effect does writing have on your mental health?
It definitely helps in the sense that it lets me step outside of my own thoughts for a while and really get lost in an article. Sometimes I write as catharsis. It soothes me.
On the other hand I’ve been criticised in the past for being a workaholic; I think when you do something you love for a living it can be difficult to introduce boundaries, especially as a freelancer. That can sometimes just exacerbate my anxiety; it makes me feel like I’m drowning.
What other topics do you cover in your writing?
Everything from porn, HIV activism and sex education to digital rights, music and fashion — I’ve worked with some amazing editors in the past who have really given me free rein to delve deep into projects and topics I’m passionate about.
What’s been the proudest achievement in your career as a journalist/writer so far?
Being retweeted by Lady Gaga. I remember being laid out in a capsule hotel in Hiroshima with an eye infection and then seeing my name on her profile, so I cried and phoned my grandparents!
When did you ‘come out’ and what affect did that have on your mental health?
I tried to come out at 13 but it didn’t go well – I understand now that my mum just couldn’t comprehend that I knew my sexuality before I even had sexual experience but that experience was still painful and definitely made me miserable for a while.
My circumstances were quite unique, so coming out for me wasn’t as painful as it can be for a lot of people – I properly ‘came out’ to my mum on my 18th birthday at a Chinese buffet in Durham (very glamorous I know!) and she was hugely accepting.
Having said that, I think there’s a misconception that you only come out once. It’s every day and that can really take a toll on my anxiety sometimes.
When I meet new people, I panic about mentioning it; I overthink and assume they’ll judge me; I think back to times in the past where I’ve told someone I’m queer and then been met with nastiness or violence. In that sense, meeting new people who aren’t queer and don’t necessarily know I am can feel like walking a tightrope.
You’re also a queer advocate and openly write and post about queer and LGBT issues in the community. What issues are you passionate about and why?
There are so many and I think they’re really dependent on context. I’m really focused on being the best ally I can be and spotlighting relentless transphobia in the media or the discrimination that queer people of colour still face on a daily basis, even from within their own community.
I think it’s important to realise that queer people in the UK are more likely to be impoverished; to suffer with mental illness; to be homeless. These are things we don’t talk about enough because the media likes to stereotype us or commission writers that write strictly from a personal standpoint and don’t spotlight wider issues within the community.
We need to use our platform to be talking about the reports of queer people being murdered in Chechnya or supporting the activists in countries fighting their governments’ policies – these issues don’t get anywhere near enough airtime.
Asking whether straight people should play queer roles is another issue that frustrates me — I’m not discrediting issues like this because we do need to be mindful of who is telling our stories and who is profiting from them but I really wish the media would pay as much attention to human rights violations as it does to click-bait op-eds. Companies love us when they can cash in but they turn a blind eye when we’re being killed.
Have you told anyone close to you about your mental health issues like your friends or family and have you asked for support for them?
I have friends struggling with similar issues, so definitely — one of my closest friends is always there for me no matter what and she listens to me even when I convince myself I’m being irrational or self-destructive.
Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly anxious I dissect my character relentlessly and end up hating myself, so it’s really wonderful to have people that will listen to you.
My granddad in particular has been a real rock as well. He doesn’t really understand my world – I’m the first in my family to move far away from home, let alone come out but he’s so supportive and never judges. There’s nothing I feel like I couldn’t tell him.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
This is definitely something I’m still working on. Logging off helps me; music helps me; writing helps me. In the past I’ve leaned heavily on alcohol as a coping mechanism, so rebuilding a healthy relationship with alcohol has been difficult; I can also still do hugely reckless things to cope. I’m learning every day.
If you could say, what do you think have been your lowest and highest points in your mental health journey so far?
My lowest points was definitely during the six months I lived in Paris. I was failing university due to circumstances out of my control. I was necking litres of whisky and trying to manage by controlling my body; I developed a disordered relationship with food and starting rationing myself intensely. Writing and my friends were all that got me through that period.
In terms of high points, I’d say it’s now. Things that use to spike my anxiety – mainly stressful tasks that I’d avoid and obsess over, or big decisions – are becoming easier to manage and I tend to be better at knowing when to withdraw from a situation now.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, in what way?
To an extent, yes. There are some really wonderful writers discussing their mental health and I feel like people are more understanding than they once were but more still needs to be done, especially in the workplace.
Employers will claim to support their employees but drop when their mental health issues interfere with their productivity; the government will feign an interest in mental health but then deprive vital NGOs of funding; people will claim to be understanding but drop their friends when their mental health issues become too much — also something I’ve been guilty of doing in the past.
To really change the conversation requires a radical change and I think people underestimate how difficult it will actually be. Lots of my friends see therapists but what about the people struggling that can’t afford them? I know people that have been crippled by extensive waiting times but they haven’t had the cash to bypass them. To be poor and mentally ill is still the ultimate disadvantage and that’s something we don’t acknowledge enough.
OH, and the #1 song in the world right now is literally called ‘Sweet but Psycho’ and it’s about a woman whose sex appeal is more or less linked to her ‘psycho’ personality. Have we really moved past the fetishisation of mental illness?
What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone, but especially men and boys who have mental health issues get the support they need?
I unfortunately can’t see an end to the government’s austerity measures any time soon, so I think it’s crucial to support NGOs doing vital work, check in on your friends and – in terms of men and boys – deconstruct masculinity.
Weakness in men is too often linked to emasculation, so we need to reinforce that ‘masculinity’ as we know it isn’t exactly an aspirational standard. The Gillette ad tried to do that, but it was met with huge backlash – which shows that any conversations around the negative effects of ‘toxic masculinity’ still leave some men feeling like they’re being implied as the problem.
I’ve always had a pretty strained relationship with masculinity. I was raised in a working-class village by a family whose entire bloodline consists of miners and manual labourers, so I was expected to follow the same path. Careers advisers told me there was no hope for me academically (my school’s GCSE pass rate was around 30%), so I was encouraged to ‘take up a trade’ because it was seen as the only viable way to live comfortably.
Because I had no interest in those things I was deemed effeminate; I was bullied; my life was dominated by this really fucked up idea that I wasn’t ‘man enough’.
It’s obviously difficult for me to speak outside my own experiences as a visibly queer guy, but so often I end up in conversations with straight men who tell me they wish they had the confidence to wear make-up or to paint their nails. My granddad once told me he wanted to get his ear pierced but was worried it might make him look ‘gay’ – imagine!
We need to relax these standards of what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, because they’re pressuring people into self-censorship and that automatically has a knock-on effect on mental health. It makes you self-critical and that can exacerbate anxiety.
That’s one basic thing I think we can all do – just think about ‘masculinity’ critically, realise that it’s essentially a made-up code that looks different to everyone. Once you acknowledge that, it’s easier to stop feeling so much pressure to live up to it.
Jake is a Sheffield-based journalist whose work covers everything from porn and sex work to drugs and queerness. He is also studying for a PhD in Gender & Sexuality at the University of Birmingham.
You can follow Jake on Twitter @jake2103.
Check out more Just Checking In conversations here.