Big interview: Author Matt Haig on our anxious world

With author Matt Haig back in Leeds this month, Chris Bond caught up with him to talk about his new book, mental health and why he misses Yorkshire.

Matt Haig. PIC: Simon Hulme
Matt Haig. PIC: Simon Hulme

It’s three years since Matt Haig and his family upped sticks and left Yorkshire to start a new life on the South Coast.

But for Haig, who was born in Sheffield and has spent most of his adult life in Yorkshire – he studied in Hull and Leeds before he and his wife, fellow writer Andrea Semple, moved to York – his home county remains close to his heart.

“I’ve pretty much lived in all quarters of Yorkshire and we miss the North. We still see ourselves as fish out of water northerners,” he says.

Haig’s back on familiar turf later this month when he returns to Leeds, where he lived for eight years, for an event at Waterstones where he will be talking about his latest book, Notes On A Nervous Planet. It’s an absorbing and personal take on how to feel happy and human in a world that at times can feel like neither. He’s keen to point that it’s not a follow-up to the hugely popular Reasons to Stay Alive, his honest and brilliantly written account of his battle with depression.

“After doing Reasons to Stay Alive I definitely didn’t want to write Reasons To Stay Alive 2, or More Reasons To Stay Alive, so I wrote some children’s books and a novel because I was very wary about being defined as Mister Mental Health and that being my thing,” he says. “Also, I didn’t feel I had anything more to say.”

But three years on and having thought more broadly about the issue, he felt there was in fact more he wanted to say. “It’s something I didn’t understand fully when I was writing the first book but I’ve realised that my mental health is affected by how I use technology and lack of sleep. I feel we’re in a very fast-changing world and we talk a lot about the political dimension of that but we haven’t really looked at the health aspects and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Notes On A Nervous Planet isn’t a self-help book, more an attempt to better understand why stress levels and anxiety are on the increase.

Haig is a prominent voice on social media (at the last count he had more than 217,000 followers on Twitter) but he concedes that technology and the way we’ve become so reliant on it is impacting on our wellbeing.

It was while he was writing and researching the book that he started to change some of his own habits, like charging his mobile phone in the kitchen overnight rather than next to his bed. “I used to get out of bed late because I’d be scrolling through the news and social media for an hour. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, I just think we need to be a little bit more aware of how we use social media and the effect it can have on our mental health.”

Technology enables us to contact friends and loved ones on the other side of the planet at the tap of a button and raise awareness of social injustice, but there’s a downside and impact it can have on our mental wellbeing is only slowly becoming apparent.

“It has led us to have a more sedentary lifestyle and it’s affecting our relationships. We see this most strikingly among young people and millennials with recent reports of record high levels of loneliness, yet on the face of it this is the most connected generation there’s ever been.”

Haig feels the accepted wisdoms that used to govern our lives have been called into question. “There’s a sense that we’ve had it so good for so long and that we may be coming into more ominous territory. There’s a lot of kick-back against this idea of a globalised age, but I think there’s also a sense that we’re redefining what ‘having it all’ means.

“The number of famous people with lots of money, who we imagine have everything and yet go on to take their life, or check themselves into rehab, is a sign that perhaps we need to think about what happiness really is.”

In other words, our mental health is just as important as our physical health. “One of the ways we look at developed societies is through longevity and the absence of child mortality, and all those markers of physical health and yet mental health often gets overlooked. I also think that the sooner we stop looking at our GDP as the sole indicator of our success the better we will be.”

When it comes to mental health, Haig speaks from experience. It was during his 20s when it all came to a head.

“I’d been living very unhealthily, I’d been drinking too much and smoking and I was partying all night in Ibiza. Underlining all this was my need to escape in the first place.

“I was a typical young man who wasn’t very in tune with himself but I could only go on doing that for so long. It was like a quarter-life crisis, where you leave university and have a couple of years off and you need to join the real world but you don’t know what you dare to do. So with me I had a fear of the future combined with low self-esteem and it came to a head one morning with a panic attack that didn’t end.”

It was a traumatic experience and one that left him feeling powerless. “When I first became depressed I thought this was my new reality forever. But over the years, whether it’s going for a run in the morning or spending less time on Facebook, having that feeling of control can make a difference.

“One of the chapters in the book is called ‘The Detective of Despair’ and that’s what it’s about for me, it’s about being your own detective and working out what makes you ill and that in itself is very empowering.”

Writing became a release and brought about a change in career. His first novel, The Last Family In England, told the story of a family whose life together is threatened by the arrival of a new couple and their out-of-control springer spaniel, Falstaff. Narrated by the family’s pet labrador, Prince, and loosely based on a Shakespearean tale, the book went on to sell more than 200,000 copies.

That was 14 years ago since when Haig has proven to be one of our most exciting and 
prolific writers. He hopes his experiences can help others.

“Mental health teaches you to understand your mind almost as a weather system, in that you might be experiencing something but it’s not a permanent truth or reality.

“You develop this kind of inner therapist and now when I have little bouts of anxiety the difference is the bouts don’t last as long and I kind of know what to do and I can usually trace it back to the cause.”

He says writing Notes on a Nervous Planet was a way of finding more tools for his mental health toolbox. “You can feel very isolated when you’re having mental health troubles and just hearing someone else articulate it, or be honest about it, can be very comforting and that’s what I try and do. I also want to be positive. I wanted to highlight all the ways the world can send us insane but at the same time show that it doesn’t need to be the case and that we can be in charge of ourselves.”

* An Evening With Matt Haig is at Waterstones, Leeds, July 25, at 7pm. All tickets for the event are now sold out.