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World Mental Health Day: Tips for a healthy mind from London’s leading art figures

Only in the last few years have mental health and physical health begun to be regarded on an equal par. Open conversations about mental health help to break the stigma, but they also remind us that it’s an issue that affects us all.

Self-care is too often relegated to the last priority in the midst of life in a high pressure city, long days at work and digital devices that don’t allow us to ever truly switch off. Opening up about how you’re really feeling is hard enough, and finding and taking practical steps to look after your body and mind isn’t straightforward either.

To mark this year’s World Mental Health Day, we asked leading London arts figures for their tips on self-care and keeping a healthy mind.

Rufus Norris

The stresses and pressures of a hectic artistic life – and the workaholism that often goes with it – can sometimes lead to a complete abdication of responsibility in looking after yourself. I am no expert in this field and it’s a perpetual challenge. However, there are a few of key aspects of life that I try to make space for in order to keep some kind of balance.

First is to make sure there are people around you who are empowered to point out when you are losing perspective – in other words, to look after the organisation by looking after you. The second is to maintain at least a basic level of physical fitness as the wellbeing of mind and body are utterly interdependent. The third if at all possible is to respect the importance of sleep. Occasional holidays are an added bonus.

Rufus Norris is Director of the National Theatre

Bryony Kimmings

I look after my mental health by: Not drinking, as much as possible. Lifting heavy weights at the gym. Sleeping. For me my mental health is triggered by lack of sleep. Positive mantras and crystals. Some people think this is hippy-dippy nonsense. I say whatever works for you, works. Treating myself kindly. I wouldn’t talk to a friend how I used to talk to myself, so I monitor my inner negative voice. And I talk. About it. All the time. Therapy for me is key.

Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is at Battersea Arts Centre until October 20

Rebecca Frecknall

Working as a freelance director can often be stressful, high-pressured and uncertain. Managing my anxiety has become an essential part of my professional life and I have personally found that taking my physical well-being seriously has a direct and positive effect on my mental health. Making sure I eat well, exercise regularly and cut down on caffeine and sugar helps keep my anxiety at a manageable level during the build-up to and throughout rehearsal periods. They’re all simple things but I really notice the difference when I don’t bother to do them.

Summer Smoke, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is at Duke of York’s from November 10 – January 19

Felicity Ward

Looking after your mental health is as boring as it sounds. Sleeping regularly. Eating three meals a day, which don’t all involve just bread. Exercising (I know, the absolute worst mate, but a non-negotiable). Meditating (don’t believe that you are good or bad at it. Just do it and keep doing it. It gets better slowly. But it helps). Getting out of the house. And find some nature every now and again. Go throw your body in some cold outdoor water…only if you can swim… and you have someone with you… you know what, maybe just go and look at a tree.

Felicity Ward is at Soho Theatre from December 17-22

Ellen McDougall

We’ve been talking a lot at the Gate recently about the Politics of Care – and how centring the idea of care could be a radical way to reimagine all sorts of things about how we work: it relates to equality, sustainability, and representation. On a personal level, I feel very lucky to have a team around me at the Gate – it’s a contrast to when I was working as a freelancer, and spending a lot more time on my own, or as an outsider in organisations I was working for. I personally find it really helpful to take time to be in nature – I recently went to Highgate Woods for the first time, an ancient woodland. And learning to trust that changing your focus, or putting work on hold for a moment, is as important as doing the work.

Ellen McDougall is artistic director of the Gate Theatre. Dear Elizabeth opens on 17 January

Bea Colley

A few years ago, during a particularly difficult time, I learnt transcendental meditation. It’s a practice that my parents swear got them through their teaching years and that celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and David Lynch live their lives by. I know that if I can keep up the 20 minutes each morning and evening, the day will be brighter and calmer. Also, being a lover of poetry, I have a theory that a poem will always find you in times of need. Sometimes I head to Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library, pick up an anthology and wait for a poem to bring me comfort.  

Bea Colley is Literature Programmer at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival which runs October 18-28

Milly Thomas

I try to combat any digital envy by being as frank as I can. Comparison is the thief of joy. I think we have a duty to de-mystify this process. It’s why I tell others that those four months I sat on the sofa, unemployed, eating instant ramen should be on my CV. If all we keep showing each other are the highlights and not being frank about how this process works then I worry we’re all going to feel worse. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have found great solace in knowing that it isn’t just me and that bad days are permissible. Doing my show Dust it’s a question I get asked a lot. “How are you doing that?”. “Are you okay?” I’m absolutely fine, but only because I spent ages testing what worked for me and learning how to be alright. A huge process of trial and error but I know so much more about myself now. Even the stuff I didn’t want to know. It all helps.

Dust is at Trafalgar Studios until October 13

Bengi Ünsal

Programming gigs at Southbank Centre means I’m constantly working all hours – emailing agents, reporting to the board, talking to international artists in the middle of the night. And even when I’m ‘off’, I’m ‘on’ – listening to music on my commute isn’t exactly an escape for me. But don’t get me wrong – I love my job! I find being near water is really helpful to calm myself. We’re lucky in London that there are significant waterways through the city. Of course I work right on the River Thames, and I live near the canal so I can surround myself with relative calm there. I also love swimming. Nothing better. And when it really gets too much, I escape to my native Istanbul for excellent food, friends and (slightly) warmer weather.

Bengi Ünsal is Senior Contemporary Music Programmer at the Southbank Centre

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