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Swirlzine founder Andy Walton talks about his mental health project.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what the importance of this project is to you?
I am a mental health nurse in the outreach team of Combat Stress, the leading military veteran mental health charity in the UK. I am a proud Dad of two-year-old twins and we live in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
Previously, I worked in an Early Intervention in Psychosis Service within the National Health Service. Prior to this, I worked in public relations before I career changed and re-trained in mental health nursing.
I have struggled with anxiety since I was a teenager and I am now 34. Over the years I have been prone to compulsively double checking, over analysing potential outcomes and repeating myself. This vicious cycle of worry felt as if my brain was trying to ruin the very things I looked forward to the most. No matter how irrational the obsession. I have a handle on this now and feel strong in my conviction to be self-aware and manage my anxiety. I truly feel Swirl can empower people to feel the same.
How did swirlzine get started and grow into what it is today?
When I was moving house, I was trying to organise a big box full of leaflets, magazine articles, journals, self-help books relating to managing anxiety. I wanted to bring all the important stuff together so it was accessible, simple and saved some space! So I did! "I found reading and talking about the advice empowering and then putting it into my own words helped consolidate my learning. I created my own concise guide. And then I thought why not make it look good? And that was the start of Swirl.
My blogging through nowandafterwards.com has allowed for a connection with other like-minded liberal and determined individuals. Those willing to share their personal narrative around the subject of mental health for the wider good. I shared my idea for Swirl and it quickly drew a lot of enthusiasm.
I contacted illustrator Nate Kitch whose work in The Guardian I deeply admired and luckily he agreed to the idea of putting something together, triggering the development of the project whereby I then collaborated with mental health professionals and individuals with lived experience to ensure content was evidence-based and effective.
The reason I approached Nate Kitch for the illustrative work was that I felt his work was culturally ingrained, of the times, and ideal for reflecting a spectrum of emotions via his collage-style illustrations. The practical suggestions within the guide bring together a holistic approach to overcoming overthinking, and I felt his style worked well to reflect the process of coming through afflictions/complexities to find peace in the here and now.
We worked on crafting the wording for around 9 months to ensure we did our best to create something that would gently and beautifully pull people through the moments that feel too heavy, too loud, too much. The wording therefore had to be concise, empowering and comforting in equal measure. I know the advice is evidence-based and has worked for me and people I have worked with in my nursing role, but I wanted to present it in a way that people could truly relate to, I wanted Swirl to help make mental health part of everyday conversation. I reached out to Gina Yu to help with the narrative, she is a creative director based in Atlanta and is amazing with words.
The last piece of the jigsaw was a graphic designer to put it all together. Studio Moross showed great kindness and genuine enthusiasm for what we were trying to do and I was delighted when they said yes to making the project a finished tangible product. Next up was a printer and Ex Why & Zed were ideal as they have done mental health zines before and understood the importance we placed on making sure the tactile elements of the project were conducive to comforting an anxious mind.
I can say that bringing an idea to fruition is exciting but never simple or easy. I am proud of how it came together and full of admiration and appreciation for those involved to help make it a reality. Once published, The Guardian shared the motivation behind it and through this exposure and subsequent word of mouth, the zine has been purchased worldwide.
Goals and motivation behind this amazing project?
I feel due to having lived experience and professional training in the anxiety management I was well informed of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to advice for managing worry and rumination and felt that there wasn’t anything like Swirl available, so I created it myself in my spare time. A journey and process I am very proud of.
The aim was to tackle the taboo of mental health, with something striking that would rival any coffee table book. I wanted to produce an artistic and concise alternative to lengthy self-help literature, empowering those who don’t, or can’t, read long-form writing for pleasure whilst struggling with their mental health.
Swirl was designed to be something you can grab at 3am in the morning when your mind is swirling with thoughts, or flick through during your commute to help set up a positive mindset. Not a set of personal stories but a set of possible solutions to managing negative overthinking." For me, it was important it was a printed zine and therefore something tangible, something different than just another chunk of information flicked through via one's smartphone. I feel that you're in the midst of negative overthinking, something tangible that has a calming sensory impact can help bring you back into the moment and can help take the power out of your thoughts.
Whilst acknowledging that specialised treatment and expert guidance is sometimes required, my vision was to try and provide accessible advice for all, reducing the feelings of isolation and hopelessness of individuals frustrated by often overly complex and inaccessible approaches to overcoming mental distress. Helping to highlight that being open and honest and facing up to a struggle with mental health is positive, admirable and part of actively engaging in a modern life. Not a sign of weaknesses as it has long been portrayed.
Who is the targeted audience?
Forward-looking individuals who are curious about the world and embrace change. Individuals who are liberal-minded, interested in personal development, arts and culture. People interested in self-care, self-help and aesthetically pleasing design.
The words “worry and rumination” are highlighted on the website. What is the significance of those thought processes when someone is going through the book?
Swirl is all about trying to manage negative overthinking. A concise guide to exactly that. Not some cure-all book, but something very specific relating to something which I struggled with personally. Worry is often future focused while rumination represents repetitive thoughts about the past. Developing the ability to recognise that you are going down a route of worry or rumination and developing the skills to manage this is how we can move forward and better manage our mental wellbeing.
Why was it important to incorporate feedback and consultation from mental health professionals in your process to create swirl?
As a mental health professional with lived experience I was very confident with the practical suggestions I wanted to include within Swirl. I also felt it was important to get other people’s perspectives to ensure I was looking at things from all angles and there wasn’t any additional advice to add or challenge. With mental health, different approaches work for different people but the general guidelines for managing anxiety are consistent. It’s about building a toolkit of positive coping strategies that work for you.
What is the future of Swirlzine?
We are in the process of formulating ideas, driven by the goal of sharing what works to manage negative overthinking with as many people as possible. We believe a Swirl membership platform could provide opportunities to do so in authentic and straightforward ways. However, we are still undecided on how this would look. We do love the idea of membership cards that also work as grounding tools. And we are having our first Swirl Live event in London in September which is a talk about the project and a facilitated conversation around positive coping strategies found within the guide.
Thank you Andy for being so open about your story and filling us in on what Swirlzine is all about!