Mental health is an issue that affects so many of us; the most recent figures from the NHS show that one in five women in the UK has reported a mental illness in recent years.
Despite these overwhelming numbers, however, sufferers often feel incredibly alone, and find it difficult to open up to friends and family. With so many misconceptions about mental health, it can be hard to explain to others what’s really going on inside your head – and put the complex range of emotions into words that your loved ones will understand.
Cartoonist and illustrator Sow Ay knows all too well the alienation and isolation that comes hand-in-hand with mental illness; he suffers with generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and depression.
So, in a bid to pave the way to a better understanding of the issues faced by so many, the talented artist has created a series of cartoons which explore what anxiety and depression really feels like.
From thoughtless comments made by loved ones, to the constant shadow of helplessness that looms over everyday situations, the illustrator has perfectly captured the realities of living with a mental illness.
“I can’t believe you have anxiety issues,” one of his illustrated characters can be seen saying to a troubled pal. “You always look so quiet, relaxed, calm…”
It’s a scenario that sufferers will know all too well; many fail to realise that it’s possible to present a ‘perfect’ version of yourself to the world – and then be falling apart behind closed doors.
Explaining the story behind this particular image (seen above), Sow Ay writes: “It kind of surprises me when people say this. But to me, it's also the proof that the struggle is invisible. I had to talk about this to my co-workers because I just couldn't work. I can't do anything. I missed the Fantastic Beasts premiere I was waiting for so long and still can't find the strength to do anything. All those months lost being a zombie...
“Maybe hearing the secret from someone like me, who always managed to do everything (maybe too much) to handle everything and spent nights and week-ends working on projects helps them to understand how powerful anxiety and mental disorders can be.”
A self-taught freelance illustrator, Sow Ay lives in France – and his images definitely hammer home the point that a picture can be worth more than a thousand words.
For so many of his Instagram followers, they have provided something of a lifeline.
Explaining his project to Scary Mommy, Sow Ay said: “I started these drawings because I’m really bad at explaining what’s inside my head, and explaining by drawing has always been a lot easier for me.”
He added: “I’ve always been drawing about what’s in my mind. I would say it got more personal and I dared more after last summer.”
Sow Ay is very honest and forthcoming about his personal struggles, and often posts updates alongside his images on his Tumblr page.
“This year’s been by far my most difficult,” he revealed towards the end of 2016. “I’ve always been a person full of hope despite my anxiety disorder but it was so hard this year. To not stay in bed every day. I had to stop working. I don’t know when I’ll start again and the simple thought of it terrifies me.
“The panic attacks, depression and anxiety were strong enough to paralyze me at home. I was too scared and felt too bad to get out. Yeah, because anxiety is also physical, butterflies in the stomach, stitches in the chest, huge exhaustion, the fear to throw out or have a panic attack in public (isn’t that the worst?)…I spent some weeks without seeing the light.”
In another post, he added: “Those last months, I had to cancel a lot of projects. Even gigs. I never cancelled gigs before this year and always did my best to not abandon anything even if that meant working twice more. Maybe that helps to understand how powerful that can be. I hope I’ll be able to get this ghost under control soon.
“A HUGE THANK YOU to everyone supporting my work, your support means a LOT MORE than you can ever imagine.”
Sow Ay has since met with his doctors and been prescribed new medication. And, as so many mental health experts advise, he has made an effort to get outdoors and enjoy gentle exercise – in the form of his Pokemon Go app.
“Pokemon Go became a way to keep my brain quiet when I was out,” he said. “To avoid or reduce the anxiety in the bus. And maybe avoid panic attacks
“You know, many laughed at me for ‘being a kid’ and all that. But damn, Pokemon saved me.”
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can affect sufferers both physically and mentally – and the severity of the symptoms can vary from person to person.
These can include:
- A sense of dread
- Feeling constantly “on edge”
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
There are many symptoms anxiety and you’re unlikely to experience all of them at once. Experts advise sufferers to visit their GP because, despite the fact that GAD is a long-term condition, there are a number of treatments available.
You can find out more information – including a series of approved self-care tips – on the Mind website.