The Guardian recently found that of the 15 neighbourhoods with the highest prevalence of depression in the UK, 12 out of 15 were in the North West.
Why? And what can we do about it? This is what the ambitious entrepreneur, Atheer Al-Salim, asked himself after moving to Manchester from London 18 months ago.
Managing anxiety all his life, Ath is keenly aware of mental health issues. Relocating to the North West illuminated a deficit in mental health awareness compared to London.
Turning work into mental health advocacy
After spending eight and a half years working in various Digital and Social Media Marketing roles in London, Ath started a new role as Head of Social for the multi-award winning media production company, Spirit Media in 2014.
During his time there, Ath spearheaded a mental health awareness campaign called #IAmWhole for the NHS and WMCA. Its aim was to encourage young people to challenge mental health stigma and feel more confident to speak out and seek help.
#IAmWhole ran for two years and was fronted by the hip hop star, Jordan Stephens from Rizzle Kicks, advocate for mental health. The campaign caught fire despite being low budget and was supported by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Liam Gallagher and Jeremy Hunt.
Just the beginning
Owing to the success of #IAmWhole, Ath was impassioned to hold a music fundraising event at The Roundhouse in London, November 2018, involving the male suicide charity, CALM and the WMCA.
Again, he secured support from influential artists, such as Olly Murs and Professor Green, and the event was a huge success.
It was around this time that Ath and his wife decided it was time to leave London. With two boys reaching school age, Ath wanted to ensure they had the best possible upbringing.
The family relocated to Manchester. It didn’t take long for Ath to see the huge gaps in mental health support that currently exist up north.
Why is the North West experiencing a mental health crisis?
“Mental health campaigns and activities are extremely London-Centric,” says Ath. “There is a real lack of activity happening up here, despite the fact that more and more people are struggling with their emotional wellbeing.”
The numbers agree. The highest estimated prevalence of depression in the UK (23%) is in Stockport, according to a recent study. Whereas the lowest percentages can be found in London’s many districts.
It will only get worse if we don’t improve the status quo. Ath believes that the rise in mental health problems is attributed to drastic lifestyle changes over the past decade:
“We live in an always-on culture where, thanks to mobile phones, we’re never really away from the office. This makes education surrounding self-care more important now than ever.”
A cause close to his heart
It’s obvious that Ath cares deeply about crushing mental health stigma and giving people access to adequate support and he explained why it’s so important to him.
“I’ve always been an anxious child. However, my mental health took a turn for the worse when I was 25, and I experienced my first panic attack.
“I was working for a big PR agency in London and was doing a ridiculous amount of overtime. The stress resulted in a huge panic attack. It was terrifying.
“Over the next five or six years, I had daily attacks. I had to make huge lifestyle changes to improve my mental health. I went on medication, exercised more, drank less and did a lot of meditation.
“Over the years, things got better. But I still have anxiety. It comes in peaks and troughs. It’s going to be something I’ll have to manage for the rest of my life.”
Strategies for coping with a panic attack
“Spotting the early signs is critical. Your chest tightens, you sweat, you feel clammy and your breathing becomes shallow. Once you start to feel those symptoms coming on, you need to focus on taking deep breaths in and out through your mouth. Repeat this until you start to feel calm again.”
For more information: 11 Ways to Stop a Panic Attack
A cause worth singing for
With a deep-seated passion for helping others improve their mental health, Ath wanted to replicate the success of his London campaigns in Manchester. And so Headstock Festival was born, launched in partnership with Help Musicians and Manchester Mind.
For an entire week in May 2020, famous and grassroots musicians from the North West and beyond will be stepping on stage to raise awareness for mental health. Over seven days and 9 iconic venues some of the biggest music artists from Manchester, the North West and beyond will be taking the stage. The lineup is currently under wraps but Ath hinted at some “big surprises”. Live music will take place at a different venue every day with the largest shows in the evening.
The main goal of the festival is to: “break the silence surrounding mental health problems, remove the stigma and send out the message that it’s good to talk, and it’s okay not to be okay.”
If you want to get your business involved, Ath advised that: “We welcome new partnerships and are open to what they might look like. We want this to be a collaborative process, uniting people from all over the North West to spread positive messages surrounding mental health.”
Ath’s last piece of advice
“Check out Ikigai, a Japanese philosophy and way of living to help you find balance and fulfillment. The ten rules to follow are:
● Stay active; don’t retire.
● Take it slow.
● Don’t fill your stomach.
● Surround yourself with good friends.
● Get in shape for your next birthday.
● Reconnect with nature.
● Give thanks.
● Live in the moment.
● Follow your ikigai. Japanese philosophy
“Following these principles has served me extremely well, and I’d recommend it to anyone struggling with their mental health and a lack of drive.”