9 mins

How Mental is a mental health community on a mission to make well-being the global priority. To do this, George built an app and a multi-platform community with around 800.000 followers on Instagram. Mental health is a fast-moving, creative space. How Mental brings together resources and tools from across the sector so that people can find what they need to take care of their mental health, easily, in one place.

Mental health is so often wrapped up in secrecy and taboo. Talking about the subject openly and easily with George made me wonder why so many people have difficulty discussing such an everyday subject. One of George’s key insights is that it’s hard to get engaging, high-quality information on mental health. Another is that for someone who is experiencing mental health difficulties, the internet can be a dangerous place. How Mental wants to change that. They’re bringing the subject of mental health out into the open and fostering a community that supports everyone’s mental journey.

I’m so happy to be speaking with you George. Let’s take it from the beginning and talk about how How Mental got started.

It’s funny, but in the beginning, I didn’t intend to start How Mental. I’d been in the mental health sector unknowingly for a few years. I say unknowingly because I was creating an app to help my granddad who had dementia. While developing that app, I was meeting with lots of other people in the mental health sector. Gradually, I became known around my coworking space as “the guy working in mental health.”

One day, a friend came up to me at work and said, “George, I know you work in mental health. I’ve been feeling super depressed and don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go or what would help. Should I just go on Mind’s website?”

Hearing her questions shocked me. Working in the sector, I was getting to know the different aspects of it. Not just the terminology or the diagnoses, but how things work, what’s good, what’s not, and where the innovations lead. And here she was talking about Mind, this big mental health charity in the UK. It’s super old school, very traditional. I was shocked when I realized that people, including myself, had no idea what to do when it came to getting support for their mental health.

It made me angry – people just had no education on the subject. I was also angry because so many amazing people pour their hearts and souls into the mental health sector. They create and develop support, get scientific validation for their ideas, and develop technology-based approaches. It takes years of work! Yet the general public has no idea where to find the right help.

So I started How Mental as a community on Instagram. We brought people together – individual advocates and organisations in the sector – who wanted to get their word out. I wanted to bring people together in one place so we could empower each other’s voices. I also wanted to create a simple gateway for people to access the support they need.

So that’s how this all started. Anger! I was really angry, and honestly, that was fuel…

I understand! It’s frustrating to see such confusion with so many resources available. Would you say that How Mental facilitates access?

Access is one big part. But another big part has to do with going against what traditional mental health charities stand for. There is something so lacking in the idea that we must turn to a charity to support our well-being. I think that associating mental health with charity organizations leads to stigma.

Needing to turn to a charity to care for our mental health perpetuates a narrative that we are some kind of “charity case”, vulnerable and in need of charitable assistance. And although we are all obviously vulnerable to some extent and charities do incredible, important work, no one wants to feel like they have to turn to a charity for support, even when they need it.

So my question was, “How could we create a more empowering narrative?” People shouldn’t take care of their mental health only when they reach “the very end.” We should continuously care for our mental health in plenty of different ways.

And we want to make it cool! The term “mental health” can sometimes feel jarring, but it is really about everything we do day-to-day to keep ourselves well. Seeing friends, expressing our feelings, going for walks in nature, connecting with our environment, connecting with what’s happening in the world around us, and even reading the right kind of news all contribute to our well-being. It just depends on how you look at it.

What a great way of looking at mental health! How does How Mental work?

The best way to describe How Mental is to talk about the four pillars of support.

The first pillar is Knowledge. It can be scientific knowledge or personal experiences. We want to give people different kinds of experiences and truths, so they can see where they might fit.

The second pillar is our Tools. There are many different ways to support your mental health. Take therapy for example – there are many kinds, and finding the right one is so important. So we provide different tools. And it isn’t just therapy, we also have journaling, meditations apps, devices for example. We want people to find whatever is right for them.

Then, my favorite, Community. There’s an idea in mental health, and in Western culture in general, that focuses on individualism. This is something that I fundamentally don’t believe in. My Middle Eastern heritage has always shown me the power of community, knowing your neighbors and being surrounded by friends and other people, having different textures of relationships. Community is vital in mental health because it lets us know we’re not alone. We’re not the only ones feeling this way. Connection to community can be an enormous support in itself.

The last pillar is Personalisation. I keep coming back to this idea that people need to find what’s right for them. It’s at the core of what we do. So we create tools, quizzes, and technology to help people find out who they are and how they feel and match that with what they need. For this, we are also developing an app.

Lastly, Instagram is our main hub. We have around 800,000 followers, people and organizations of all kinds. It’s a group of well-intentioned people who care about their mental health, the mental health of others and the planet. The platform really helps us get more conversations going.

Those are the main things we’re doing right now. Our aim is to be holistic. People are so multi-dimensional, and we want our service to be personal, so it requires a lot of effort. But I think we’re having a huge impact.

Speaking of impact, do you have an idea of what impact you have?

There are lots of different ways people engage with us. We’re reaching around 10 million people online every month, which seems crazy to me. This means we have these long tendrils reaching out into the world, which is really powerful and important.

And we get messages all the time from people saying things like “You don’t know how much your Instagram page means to me” or “This newsletter has helped me so much to explain my mental health to my boyfriend.” We even get mental health professionals saying they use our content with their patients. Messages like these pour into our inbox every day. It’s absolutely incredible and it means a lot to me.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say exactly what impact we have. But honestly, if there’s one thing I feel, it’s that we’re helping people every day. And this means the world to me.

That’s incredible George! What would you say is the most important thing to know about How Mental?

We use a lot of humor in talking about mental health. Look at our name. We’re called How Mental. You can see we don’t take ourselves too seriously when you hear that. It doesn’t mean that we don’t take mental health seriously. We do. It’s just that we know how important it is to balance this with levity too. We do know that some feelings are going to be difficult, that life is difficult. We all have different circumstances, balances, makeups, different everything. But at How Mental, we allow ourselves to laugh at it a little bit because this can be an incredibly difficult topic.

When I lost my grandma a few years ago, I was grieving. At that time, I learned that being able to laugh at life was going to help me to get through that. Otherwise, I would just cry. I began watching a lot of comedy, and there I was, laughing and laughing and laughing. My brother would look at me, and say, “Obviously, George is okay because he’s laughing a lot.” But actually, through all the laughter, there were also tears, hurt and pain. While this might not be true for eveybody, as someone who has also been suicidal I find that it’s so important to be able to find the humour and that light in everything.

Another important thing about How Mental is that we are a for-profit company. This scares some people in mental health, although this is changing. People think mental health should be not-for-profit, charitable work. I don’t see it that way. I’ve worked in this space for almost ten years and always thought, “You can make money and do good things.”
You can use the money to create something innovative. Whatever profit I make, I’ve put it back into the business. Since the beginning, I’ve only taken out of the business exactly what I need to survive. Our pricing is always as accessible as can be. I genuinely care about this work, and I’m putting in the time, effort and money necessary to make it happen. It can be hard, but it’s the path I’ve chosen and that I know will allow me to keep creating with as much freedom as possible.

I love talking with people like you who are in the social entrepreneurship space, so many people are searching to change how we do things. It’s not easy. So I also wanted to ask you about the challenges you’ve faced in creating How Mental? How did you deal with them?

So many challenges come to mind straight away including lack of self-belief, lack of self-esteem, confidence, and self-worth. They’re the kinds of feelings I sometimes decide to just power through because the fear behind them will never go away entirely. And actually, these feelings are also important to me for that adrenaline to be there.

Aside from that, I had to learn to be more realistic. Idealism is also important, that’s how we create new futures. But having said that, being more realistic with my resources would have helped me earlier on. I had to learn to be realistic by creating a feedback loop asking myself “Is what I’m doing creating an impact?”

Also, using Instagram and social media has been a real challenge. In the end, social media platforms have their own priorities and ways of working. This limits what you can say and do, especially around mental health. Understanding these limitations, moving accordingly and learning not to fight against something that you can’t change has been a big challenge.

And ultimately? What are you hoping to achieve with How Mental? Where do you want it to go?

The idea is to create a social network around people’s well-being, a safe space where people’s well-being matters.

I want everyone to know that mental health is the priority. Not only their priority but society’s priority. People should be able to see, live, breathe, and feel well-being in every interaction. Without a sense of the importance of well-being, there’s no way that our communities will ever make the changes we need to solve the big problems we’re facing.

I think we’re at just the beginning of the mental health revolution and we’re going to continue to have more tools and more knowledge. With the right data, technology, and platform, we can work towards making well-being something that we talk about openly and support in a really accessible way.

The Inspirer’s tagline is “Inspiring People, inspiring people.” Each person we interview is an inspiring person and I’d like to ask you George, who inspires you?

It’s funny because I used to feel very uninspired for a long time. I felt like everyone who inspired me was already dead. But that narrative is changing, partly thanks to what you are doing at The Inspirer.

It’s a difficult question, but I’d say Keith Haring. I’ve looked into his life because people used to tell me that my drawings looked like his. And as a queer person and an artist with a very strong activist side, it’s incredible how much I relate to him. I love the pure accessibility and joy I get from his work. And I like to imbue everything I do with fun and an air of childishness because we are still kids at the end of the day. Keith Haring showed me it’s possible and inspired me to grow in my art, business, activism, and the way I take part in the world.

I also have to mention Audre Lorde for her pure incredibleness. She is a powerful inspiration for me when it comes to writing and overall intersectionality and trying to understand society. Essentially, I think that I like rebels, people who go against the grain, anyone who says “Why not?” is my kind of person. They really speak to me.

Where we can find you George? How can people support what you’re doing.

You can find me on our website or on Instagram @HowMental and @IFeelGeorge, which is my art account or email me at george@howmental.com.
Otherwise, come and find me in London. I’m here, and I would love to meet, connect, and explore reality together.