A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A to Z From Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given – Natasha Devon

I think it goes without saying that a book about mental health is going to wind up with one of my famous (or is that infamous!) trigger warnings but as someone whose brain can get fairly trigger happy I didn’t have any problems while reading this one myself. However, having said that, I’m not you so please be aware and keep yourself safe if you are triggered while reading.

This is one of the best books about mental health that I’ve read, and I’ve read plenty. What sets it apart is its author, Natasha Devon, who I’ll admit I’d never heard of prior to reading this book but now feels like someone I could be friends with. Natasha is upfront about her own experiences, writes in a down to earth conversational tone and is somehow able to simplify and explain difficult topics without dumbing them down. Natasha’s aim is to present “a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand overview” and she nails it!

While I’ve been there done that on the mental health merry-go-round personally and even picked up my own psychology degree from a Cornflakes box along the way I gained new insights, knowledge and understanding while reading this book. I often find books explaining mental health to be quite dry and one of my main whinges at university was the uncanny ability of some authors to transform fascinating topics into insomnia cures. I enjoyed reading this book so much though that I wanted to start reading it again as soon as I finished it, partly because I like ‘listening’ to Natasha talk about mental health and partly because I wanted to revisit all of my aha! moments.

I particularly admired Natasha’s ability to weave her own experiences and those of people she’s met along the way with facts (including references to make people like me happy) and insights gained through her work advocating for young people. It’s a balancing act that can result in some spectacular falls when authors incorporate their personal experiences in a book about mental health. Too often I’ve read books where it becomes either a dramatic sob story that takes your attention away from the helpful information that’s hidden somewhere amongst the tissues or a holier than thou ‘I have all the answers and although I’m better than you, I will impart some of my wisdom to you. Wow, don’t you resemble an ant as I look down my nose at you from the heights of my ivory tower’ attitude. Natasha did not fall off the tightrope once.

She was able to give enough information to let you know that she gets it, show empathy so you know that not only does she get it but she also gives a damn and does this amazing thing where she can talk to you about topics that are beyond difficult to live with but she leaves you with a feeling of hope. She speaks to, not at or down to, the reader and while she is direct and leaves no room for questions marks over her point of view (I intend those as compliments, not criticisms), she’s also sensitive, empathetic and funny. She comes across as someone that I would have been able to confide in as a young person and as an old(er) person I feel like she’s someone I’d want to chat with over a cuppa.

Oh, and before you get your politically correct knickers in a twist about the book’s title you should probably know that Natasha does explain the ‘mental’ thing but better than I could so here it is in her words …

“The most important thing to acknowledge before we begin is this: I am mental. I am mental according to the most common understanding of the term, in that I have a mental illness. I am also mental in the sense that I am an intellectual and emotional being, in possession of a brain. To have a mind is to be ‘mental’. And that, reader, means that you are mental, too.”

You should probably also know that the subjects aren’t always found under the letter of the alphabet that you’d expect. For example, self-harm lives in the J chapter, as in Just Attention Seeking, but trust me, your pitchforks are not required. This makes complete sense when you read the chapter. Take it from someone who has self-harmed; if pitchforks were required here I’d be handing them out personally but Natasha deals with this topic with the same amount of sensitivity, insight and wisdom as she does with the rest of the alphabet.

I want to ask where Natasha was when I was in high school, knowing I would have benefited greatly from anything she had to say but as I’m close to her in age and across the world that’s kind of a moot point. However I am greatly encouraged that there are Natashas in the world speaking to, and on behalf of, young people about mental health.

I do have a few comments about my personal experience in Australia versus what’s described in this book about the UK. I was gobsmacked that patients only get an average of 6 minutes for a GP appointment. It made me feel so lucky that my GP has 15 minute appointments as standard and 30 minute ones available if you have a list of a bazillion things to discuss or one tricky topic. I also feel even more appreciative that I have two of the most wonderful GP’s on the planet who understand mental health conditions and who consistently go way above and beyond when it comes to looking out for my best interests.

I was absolutely appalled to read about the usual waiting times for people in the UK to be able to access mental health services. Again, my appreciation level for my equally above and beyond awesome psychologist who I may sometimes refer to as Sunshine [insert their first name here] has skyrocketed, even though I didn’t think that was possible.

Okay, so maybe this isn’t as much a traditional book review as it is me telling you the feeling I get from the author but I wonder in this instance if that’s just as important. You can say all of the right things but no one is going to want to listen to you if you’re obnoxious or you have the facts right but can’t back it up with experience or at least some compassion.

What was refreshing in Natasha’s approach was her humour. I find, probably like most people, that a good dose of humour can make even the most difficult topics easier to deal with and this book was no exception. I particularly loved the cute little illustrations by Ruby Elliott that accompanied some of the chapters and only wish there were more of them.

I am struggling to tell you who I’d recommend this book for because ‘everyone’ seems like a cop out so I’ll just tell you some groups of people that came to mind as I was reading: young people, parents, teachers, anyone with a mental illness, anyone supporting anyone with a mental illness, anyone who works in a professional capacity with young people and/or those with mental illnesses, anyone who wants to be a better friend, government and/or political types who make decisions about how money for mental health is allocated, anyone who has influence in any form of media, and anyone who wants to be a better person in general. So, yeah, everyone!

While the chapters can be read in any order I’d highly recommend you read it straight through first. I highlighted so many passages but I am having trouble picking out a favourite because they’re all so damn good. Instead I’ll tell you my favourite word of the book: cheesed-off-ness. I came across it a week ago and it is still making me smile each time I think of it. I’m also quite partial to any book that includes any of the following: shysters, wodge, almighty s**t-show, f**kwittery, bogus, skew-whiff, raison d’être.

Content warnings include mental health (duh!), self-harm, suicide, addiction and grief.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Bluebird, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, for the opportunity to discover this awesomeness. Natasha is definitely one of the good boxes. I know I’m going to get more out of it when the inevitable reread happens. I’m going to be recommending this book to my doctors and psychologist, along with random people who cross my path. I leave this book (temporarily – I know I’ll be back soon!) wanting to be a better person, advocate, listener and support person, and feeling hopeful and inspired.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

‘Am I normal?’

‘What’s an anxiety disorder?’

‘Does therapy work?’

These are just a few of the questions Natasha Devon is asked as she travels the UK campaigning for better mental health awareness and provision. Here, Natasha calls upon experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and anthropology to debunk and demystify the full spectrum of mental health. From A (Anxiety) to Z (Zero F**ks Given – or the art of having high self-esteem) via everything from body image and gender to differentiating ‘sadness’ from ‘depression’.

Statistically, one in three of us will experience symptoms of a mental illness during our lifetimes. Yet all of us have a brain, and so we ALL have mental health – regardless of age, sexuality, race or background. The past few years have seen an explosion in awareness, yet it seems there is still widespread confusion. A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental is for anyone who wants to have this essential conversation, written as only Natasha – with her combination of expertise, personal experience and humour – knows how.

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