Matt Haig’s legions of fans are familiar with the story of his mental breakdown at the age of 24, as documented in his 2015 book Reasons to Stay Alive. Haig’s accounts of his experiences of anxiety, depression and suicidality have historically struck such a significant chord with readers, particularly those who have been personally affected by similar issues, that his voice is now pre-eminent in what he refers to as “the mental health conversation” in the UK. Haig’s most recent non-fiction book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, explores how various aspects of 21st century society have a role to play in causing and perpetuating widespread mental ill-health. The ubiquity of social media; a particularly fraught political climate; a growing obsession with tracking and quantifying all aspects of life, and reducing everything to a numerical measurement (see: calorie consumption, steps taken, sleep patterns) – Haig sees a lot of what is defining about life in 2019 as counterproductive in terms of wellbeing. The human body, he says, is like “rubbish old hardware trying to run the fancy software of 2019”.
There is nothing earth-shattering about what Haig has to say this evening. In fact, some of the ideas he presents are so established that he runs the very real risk, at points, of patronising his audience. The suggestion that selfie filters and photo editing software create unrealistic beauty standards, thus making people feel inadequate, is hardly a staggering revelation in 2019. It’s the same when he indicates that social media influencers rely on creating ‘FOMO’ in their followers. The internet can be toxic towards vulnerable groups, he explains, and some elements of the media continue to use stigmatising language and images when discussing mental health. Emotional wellbeing can be improved through healthy eating and regular exercise, he tells us. It is undeniable that this is pretty well-worn, common sense stuff, in the main.
Reasons to Stay Alive felt important when it was published four years ago. In 2015, Haig’s personal memoir felt bold, honest, fresh and necessary, particularly as it was from a male perspective (often under-represented in such discussions). Key to its appeal was Haig’s humility, humour and lack of pretention. The intense personal connection fans feel to the book is testament to the central fact that Haig’s experiences are, sadly, not all that unique. The skill Haig has is in making his readers feel comforted and less isolated. His new positioning as a sort of guru-cum-academic expert is less comfortable and more problematic than when he was ‘just a writer’ with an engaging style, honestly sharing his experiences. It’s telling that a sweet highlight of the evening is when he asks if he can film the entire audience singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his ten-year-old daughter. We’re more than happy to oblige.
While it’s true that Notes on a Nervous Planet may not fulfil its promise of offering any particularly new insights into the world of mental health, it’s clear from the reaction of tonight’s audience that Haig still has the ability to give his fans a sense of solace and connection. Possibly, some feel that the impact he’s had on them in the past justifies fairly uncritical, unquestioning continued devotion. For an entry level discussion on the impact of societal factors on mental wellbeing, Haig is as palatable, uncontroversial and convincing as anyone could ask for. The audience tonight seem to be of all ages and all walks of life, and a mixture of friendship groupings, family groupings, couples and individuals. To think that all of these disparate groups are now engaged in discussions about mental health is certainly heartening, and much is owed to Haig for helping to create such a climate. In many ways, he seems to embody the idea that Alan Bennett once expressed about the primary joy of reading – that the best moments are “when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else […] And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”