Rachel Kelly: The Author Walking On Sunshine

The Notebook | 26th October 2019

The inspirational author Rachel Kelly on overcoming depression, the challanges of the social media age and fostering a compassionate inner voice

The celebrated author, journalist and public speaker Rachel Kelly was a recent guest at our monthly gathering Untroubled in The Living Room & Den, which explores various strategies for living a fulfilled life free from the chronic stress triggers of the digital age. As a young woman, Rachel was diagnosed with severe depression, having suffered two major depressive episodes that have since become the defining events of her life, leading her to pen an ever-growing number of bestselling books about recovery that have been read by tens of thousands of people worldwide. Her debut memoir Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me: My Journey Through Depression uncompromisingly chronicled her experience of life-threatening depression, and became a Sunday Times bestseller in 2014, and her second book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is an international bestseller that outlines the holistic approach which helped her recover. Her latest publication Singing in the Rain: An Inspirational Workbook–52 Practical Steps to Happiness was published by Short Books earlier this year. Since overcoming depression, Rachel has sought to help educate others and break down the stigma around mental health, working as an official ambassador for mental health charities Rethink Mental Illness, SANE and The Counselling Foundation. Here, she shares her thoughts on the pluses and minuses of the smartphone era in regard to mental health, and tells us how to develop a far more compassionate inner voice…

Talk to us about the genesis of your first book and how it helped you climb out of depression…
I hate waste. I felt there had been so many wasted years when I was unwell that I wanted to see if I could put them to some kind of use. And writing was what I knew and know as a former Times staff writer... so, the natural way to make something of the dark times was to write about them in a memoir, which I did in my first book Black Rainbow. There’s a line in the Bible I like: ‘He, who going through the vale of Baca (which is the desert) make of it a well’. So, writing was a way of making a well of a desert, and that helped me climb out of depression by giving me a sense of a purpose, for me, but also that maybe by sharing my story others might be helped too. My writing has evolved with my own recovery. I am now writing my sixth book: after writing a memoir about being seriously unwell, and, at that stage, finding poetry the best salve, I now write books that share other strategies to stay calm and well–be that via nutritional or psychological approaches, or using bibliotherapy.

Do you think the social media age is exacerbating depression in 21st century society?
Well, digital culture is reducing my attention span and it is clearly addictive. I think it is rewiring us in the sense that it takes so much of our time. So, clearly we don’t have time to spend on the stuff that is good for us–being in nature, connecting with others, trying to help others, paying attention to reading a long book. That’s how’s it is rewiring us. However, I also think we bring ourselves to our phones. So, you need to be very psychologically together not to be influenced by the desire to be approved and liked on social media, whether that is via RTs or likes, which is so understandable and human. I think unless we can find our own sense of approval, and that we don’t need to look outside of ourselves via the approval of others on social media, then it does exacerbate depressive dependencies. I have to use social media with considerable care. The plus side is that learning to use it well is a chance for psychological growth.

How do you feel about the pharma industry, and medicating for chronic depression?
Well, when you are suicidal with the physical pain of severe depression you are desperate for any drugs that might help. I think it is different for those suffering from mild to moderate depression. Then other approaches, such as therapy or lifestyle changes may be more appropriate. There is a danger we are medicalising what Freud called ‘ordinary human unhappiness’. I think medication should be short term ideally, to see you through the acute phase. The problem is that it is hard to come off the drugs, and the side-effects of doing so can mimic the depression itself–anxiety, insomnia, and so on. I think that mild to moderate depression can be overcome without the use of drugs.

What is the most effective way to overcome negative reinforcement and prevent the cyclical ‘return’ of depression?
I think we all have a negative voice, but a positive one too. My own strategy is not to deny the negative voice, but to allow it, to acknowledge it, but then to see if we can hollow out a space to hear that other voice. We all have that voice too.... Visualisation is a helpful tool: to see the negative voice as a dark cloud, but to let that cloud pass, and to realise behind there is an infinity of space and blue where other voices can find be found and listened to. I use a toolkit of strategies: mindfulness, exercise, developing a more compassionate inner voice, poetry, changing my diet to use food to influence my mood, running workshops to help others and share my experience so that maybe they can use some of the ideas that have helped me. And believing that what I do and how I live and think make a difference. Because they do!

Talk to us specifically about your international bestseller Walking On Sunshine and its purpose…
I kept a diary of my year, and over the 52 weeks recorded ideas and strategies I found helpful to manage my own anxiety and tendency to depression. There’s a real salad bowl of ideas in there, reflecting the different pressures through the year, whether that’s feeling stressed at Christmas or getting through the pressures of the working calendar or children having summer exams. I’ve always been very lucky to have lots of feedback. That’s a good side of the digital world: people can and do get in touch, and there’s so much to be learned from the experience of others. I think what I have found touching recently was a 15-year-old girl who was suffering from anxiety: she said when she did the psychological exercises in my workbook Singing in the Rain, she didn’t cry and the anxiety didn’t find her. She felt she was with a friend. Another reader wrote to me recently that she keeps my Walking on Sunshine in her bag, so she never feels alone.

Interview by John-Paul Pryor
Find out more at  www.rachel-kelly.net