E031 Mental Health for Creatives – Part 1

In this episode, we talk about the external factors that affect our mental health as creatives, and learn about the mindsets and habits that can help us find balance.

Listen here:

We reflect upon the ways in which in the events this past year (2020) has challenged us and explore ways to feel more in control of our lives and work.

We lament the lack of work-life balance that most of us have as creative practitioners and Nithya tells us how we can be more intentional and present in our lives outside of work.

We discuss about the host of ambiguities that come with freelancing as designers, and how to manage both internal and external expectations

We talk about the challenges in working in remote teams and how workplace politics can impact us as creatives.

We conclude with some mindset tips on how we can be our own biggest asset.


Nithya J Rao, a mental health expert and theater artist is also the co-founder of Heart it Out, an organization that aims to make mental health accessible.

Jerusha Isaac is an illustrator and art teacher.

Angie shares a quote from the book Productivity for Creative people by Mark McGuinness.

Nithya refers to the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron


Angie:  hi, this is Design Lota the podcast about life as Indian designers. I’m Angie. 

Sushi: And, I’m Sushi.

Angie: So we’re seeing off 2020.     And to wrap up this season  of Design Lota, we asked you to share your thoughts and questions related to mental health for creatives.

Sushi: we got a whole lot of them. We spoke to a mental health expert, a creative and a couple of resource people to understand the picture better.

Angie: Before we get into it, we wanted to share a couple of points. This episode is about those factors, issues, habits. And mindsets that affect our mental health negatively and what we can do about that.

Sushi: If you find that practical tips and changes in your work and schedule have not helped you and you continue to face serious anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue that keeps you from handling your day-to-day life and work, please get help, feel free to DM us, and we’ll do our best to connect you to the resources that can help.

 Angie: And if you’re facing an issue that we have not covered, please DM us and we’ll try and point you to resources and people that can help you.

Sushi: Looking through the responses. We could find a pattern of where the factors that affect us come from.

 Angie: There are factors that are external, right? Like difficult people, workplace issues, social media, some of those are what we will be covering in part one. That’s this episode.

Sushi: And in Part Two, we will cover those internal factors like identity imposter syndrome and how to invest in your mental health.

Angie: Well, one of the big effects of 2020 has been all about dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity and feeling completely out of control in general. And that’s what a lot of responses we got pointed at, right. concerns about having an elderly parent with COVID being around.

And, , how remote meetings are causing fatigue, feeling out of control with too many responsibilities when you’re working from home, and also the whole financial instability. So in general, a very, very, uncertain year,

Nithya: I, I cannot tell you how unprecedented it is. Like nobody in our generation or living memory has ever gone through something like this before. Like none of us have. Right. And it’s so strange how we’re all expecting ourselves to be put together and functional. We’re not supposed to be put together and functional. 

Sushi: that’s Nithya, Nithya is a theater artist and the co-founder of Heart it Out, an initiative committed to making mental healthcare accessible. 

 Nithya: We’re supposed to be freaking out and feeling lonely and scared and. upset And angry with the system, angry with each other, lonely because you don’t get to see your friends. I haven’t seen my friends who are in different parts of the country in so long, and this was such a lonely. scared year for me too you know, but I, I must say that one thing that’s really kept me going is how much resilience my clients come with into session.

They they’re like, everything is terrible. Everything is, has, I have no idea, but I’m still willing to work on myself. I’m like, where is that courage coming from? You know, and, and that’s really, really heartwarming and really, exciting to engage with because now we know that everybody’s in the same boat, we’re all struggling in one way or another, but we’re willing to put our heads together.

We’re willing to do podcasts about it. Yeah, that’s great. If you had told somebody in 1917, that the next time a pandemic is going to take over the world, youngsters are going to come together to support each other over the internet and develop softwares for vulnerable sharing. Nobody would have believed you, but look at us doing that now.

Sushi: Nithya also had some practical steps to share on how to survive times like these.

Nithya: So, I guess it’s really to open ourselves out to each other and really vulnerably listen, and be like, okay, what’s troubling you.

And I know that we can’t make it go away, but I can listen to you and I can try my best to empathize with what you’re, what you’re feeling. I guess, connecting with other human beings is one beautiful, wonderful thing we can do. And also to not forget what our routines were. Like. I remember in the very beginning of the pandemic, most of my clients who needed a routine for their mental health to remain, In their grasp.

Most of them complained about being unable to go to gym or being unable to go run, because it was so important for them, exercise for them mental health. And they were like, I don’t know what to do now. So really to go back and, and sit with one self every day, maybe even five minutes to write down what parts of my routine really helps me.

How do I morph it to fit to this current lifestyle that I’m temporarily going to lead. And then how do I make sure that I don’t let go of all of the wonderful things that made me a happier, more engaged person, and still continue. To be socially distant and still continue to do these things.

Sushi: So sort of extending that into other areas. One of you listeners had said that you’re not able to draw boundaries between work and life. So how can we be more present in our life outside work? Right. Because  we seem to constantly have this process running at the back of our minds. 

 Nithya: I think that is the, one of the biggest things that has come to the forefront because of the pandemic, how, incompetent most of us are in, in separating our work and our life and how much we have made our work, our life.

I think this is a good lesson to learn from the Nordics. and, and from the Germans on, on really putting those boundaries, I think it comes from learning to say strong nos. And practicing those strong nos, is to define a lot of things in our lives and to say, okay, my work day starts at eight o’clock.

My Workday ends at five o’clock. Post five o’clock. I am not available on the phone to actually switch off your phone. To actually convey this to your teammates. They will not know. That you are thinking of work at 11:00 AM when you’re also trying to feed your child. They do not know it is important that we convey our boundaries to the people we work with. To the bosses we work with and to say, you know what, post five o’clock everything that you send to me is going to be in the email and I will check it at eight o’clock in the morning.

It’s, it’s also a cultural thing that we’ve allowed for things. ‘Adjust Maadi’ is. Is, not just a Bangalorean slogan, it’s an India slogan. So it’s very important that we notice that work can be an infringement in our lives. And we forget to live when we make work our full life, easy way to do it is to set boundaries for self and enforce boundaries with self and with others.

And to just remind them kindly that, Hey, it’s my time with my family. I’m unavailable. I will only reach out to you at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. It doesn’t, but it requires us to do that, and for a lot of us, confrontation is hard. Communication is hard. And it’s easy for me to say, but it’s the question of, if I say this to my boss, will I lose my job?  Will stay at the back of the mind for a lot of people. Right. But it’s important that employers also develop, great systems and environments of functioning for their employees.

Angie: , when you’re a freelancer and you’re also facing, or going through a mental health issue , how does this affect the way you estimate your work?

let’s say you think you will give this to your client within a week, and then you have three days where you can’t get out of bed. What do you do then? 

Jerusha: It’s really, really tough. but at that time I remember I had a client.

In fact, at that time when I was going through an a lot and. And they would just be like, where is the work? And I can’t tell them, Hey, I’m going through this. I can’t, you know, it just excuse. Right. and so they would be like, okay, please send us the work. And I’m just like, Ugh I can’t send the work and I’m struggling to do it.

And that, that happened with that one client. And then I just take a step back and be like, okay, what am I doing wrong? What can I do better, to, in consideration. So the other thing is you can feel, you can be in denial of what you’re going through and say. It’s okay. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. I can push myself to do it the way that I used to do it.

That’s also like, not the best thing. I don’t try to do that because, because then you set yourself up, set yourself up for failure. 

Angie: that was Jerusha a freelance illustrator and an art teacher who spoke to us about how her mental health struggle affected her creative work and how she handled it.

Jerusha: Sometimes you just need somebody to push the send button. So the email can be from, yeah, the email. It can be from your account of, from, like you can make a second account that says like, you know, your name at admin. Or whatever, like whatever it is. And, yeah, if you’re not comfortable with giving them your account details, but if they, if you are comfortable, then that that’s something that helped me out a lot.

Like I could not type emails at that point or I type it and I just can’t send it. and so that helped me a lot to have somebody who would just press send for me and say, it’s done, don’t worry. It’s done. so that’s, that’s one thing you can do. A second thing is to assume that you will take double the time that you actually will take for the project.

So if you know that normally you take one week, let’s say to, to complete a project, or let’s say you take 10 hours, tell the client that you will take. I think one and a half times that. Amount of time actually and say, Hey, I’m, don’t even say, normally I take one week, just say this project will be done in two and a half weeks.

Just say that straight up. Yeah. 

Angie: Yeah. 

Jerusha: So then you’re giving yourself room for, okay. If in case you don’t want that to happen, but if it does happen, you’re prepared to give yourself that extra time. And if you do finish in that one week, Then that’s a win for you. You can send your project early and your client will be happy.

Sushi: Especially as freelancers, you don’t have like a designated boss that, and that comes with its own host of ambiguities. So one of the variables of freelancing is whether I’m going to get paid tomorrow and there’s this constant anxiety of will we get paid? Will we get paid late with a client, you know, just reject the whole thing.

And that can just make us feel really out of control. And especially at a time like this, when it’s difficult to get gigs, how do we feel more in control mentally and emotionally when things are actually not in our control physically? 

Nithya: philosophically, this is wonderful for me to say, but practically what it means is that there is no way we can predict whether this client will pay us or not. There is no way I can predict whether tomorrow morning I can get a gig or not, because those are not in my locus of control, but there are some things in my locus of control.

I can predict whether I’m going to send 50 resumes out today or not. I can send, I can predict if I’m going to put my portfolio together well today or not. I can predict only my actions. My thoughts, the stuff that I do for myself. Only these are in my control. So by trying to  control things that are not in my control, I’m actually going to put myself through a lot of stress.

Because that’s not going to happen in no universe. Can I be in control of whether this is going to be a, a wonderful client or a client from hell. No idea. Right. but what I can do is make sure that I’m part of enough forums where I can rely on other freelancers for support, enough, like there are enough Facebook groups. 50 years ago, there was nothing a freelancer had to do this all by themselves.

But now it isn’t like that. there are enough designers, artists, creators who will help each other out who will say, Hey, you know what? I got two extra gigs. Here’s some for you. Maybe they’ll teach you how to build better MOUs. Maybe they’ll teach you how to enforce contracts better. Maybe now that you’re all together, you’ll be able to say, okay, this is all of our problems.

Here’s how we’re going to systematically deal with something. But I don’t think it’s possible. At all or feasible to control things that are outside of our control.

 I can tell you that a routine will help with that even for freelancers, like you have to look for gigs, make three hours every day that is looking for gigs time. Make one hour every day, which is building my portfolio time, make two hours every day, which is researching time and then shut off after that.

It’s my exercise time. It’s my go play time. It’s my dog time. It’s my clean my wardrobe time. You can fit in freelancing lifestyles and gig economies into, this as well. 

in fact, like if, if you go through like forums of digital nomads, et cetera, the first thing they tell you is to like, swallow your three frogs in the morning, which is do your three most difficult tasks, first thing in the morning.

so yeah, there is a method to the madness, if you are going to ask me. And the method helps with streamlining the flow and the creativity. I love Julia Cameron’s book the artist’s way. And I recommend that to almost every artist creative, that I know. As a gift to me as well. It’s a book that really made me realize that sometimes we romanticize as creatives.

We’ve really romanticized an unhealthy lifestyle. No, creativity can exist in discipline. 

Jerusha: And a lot of, a lot of artists also actually they draw, draw for themselves and then draw for work. And I, there are times when I find that easy and times that that distinction is hard for me. but it’s, it is a good  habit to be able to do that. I mean, so he just joined, but whatever it is, the creative habit is, to try and like demarcate between that.

Angie: Without a set framework and boundaries on the amount and type of work we take up, we’re really setting ourselves up for burnout.

Jerusha:   it did affect my work and it did affect  the way in which I thought I could work, because, one is, so I was burnt out for a while and because of that, I felt like I had done so much creative work that I had. I just couldn’t do anything for a long time and then not being able to work on the things that I enjoyed doing the like further, kind of just made this whole thing increase.

 I think one is, of course there’s this like creative blank where you’re thinking, trying to think of ideas, but then you don’t, or you have lots of ideas, but you can’t work on them.

So they’re in your mind, but you current push yourself to do what you want to do because you have this lack of motivation or like you, you can’t really get out of bed or you can’t really,  You know, talk to people or any of those things.

Angie:  pushing yourself to keep going. Even when your mind and body need to rest,   can be really hard.

Sushi:  Another aspect to this that has , become a craze thanks to the pandemic, is up-skilling. So there’s this whole upskill or die message that has been going around, and it may be true that keeping up in your industry can help you stay relevant.

And maybe we now have a few extra hours since we don’t have to travel to work, but we actually have the Headspace for that is something we need to ask ourselves.

Angie: Right. And it’s also that there are so many options to choose from, in a world where there are thousands of courses and options that promise to educate us. We need to be really purposeful and selective in what we do decide to take up and that takes understanding our own needs. And as well as how much time we have, what’s the mental capacity we have. 

Nithya: So I bet it is very important for us to recognize, especially for our friends and colleagues, the milestones that they are making in their lives.

And not to shove, universal milestones on them, and to be like, okay, is the best thing that you could do yesterday was make yourself Maggi. Congratulations day before yesterday, you didn’t eat. You know, this was great. This is still a good move. And to not judge them based on. Oh, I made croissant yesterday.

I don’t know. I could, I could maximum make maggi yesterday. so to really meet people in the place that they’re at and not to put universal pressure points on them. And some days, if you want to curl up into a ball and cry, that’s okay. We are not productivity machines and we cannot come up with new, new things every day.

Angie: And what are we going to do with the time that we do have control of. it’s really a struggle to stay focused in this ‘always on’ world. And there’s this quote by Mark McGuiness, who’s a creative coach, which describes this quite well. I think so he says, ” I also have personal experience of the downside of the brave new world. Countless distractions and interruptions, endless email, pressure to keep up anxiety about falling behind difficulty concentrating, excruciating repetitive strain injury from too much time at the keyboard and a nagging sense that my most important work was being left undone.”

Sushi: Well, I can totally relate to that.

Angie: Yeah.

Sushi: Speaking of distractions. I also feel like it’s so hard to be present in one place when you’re expected to be present everywhere. These new ‘everywheres’ are digital spaces. Like, like Mark said, the internet has really helped designers become more visible. But the flip side to that is that we are expected to be perpetually present on multiple platforms.

And we’re also expected to churn out pixel perfect work to put up on those platforms. I don’t think anyone in history ever had to deal with that.

Jerusha: Like when you study art history, these, some of these painters, they may have produced hundreds of paintings, but they made one masterpiece or.

Three masterpieces in their entire life. Okay. but us, we feel like we need to create everything we have to create has to be a masterpiece because you have to put it on social media and you have to put one post per day or you have to put, I don’t know, 10 posts per month, whatever. According to your marketing plan, according to your social media staff, whatever it is. And it’s just, now it’s become a prerequisite for somebody in the creative field. If you are an illustrator, if you are a designer, get on Instagram, because that’s the only way people will see your work.  


Building a brand for yourself online and also posting often comes with its own expectations of having to engage with the community. And all of this can be quite exhausting.

Sushi: Yeah, I guess we’ll have to be intentional in what social media platforms we are present and the amount of time that we spend and why. I think that can go a long way.

 Jerusha: when you’re on social media, unfollow people, if you don’t want to see it, it’s okay. And it’s okay if, if you know them really well, if you don’t want to see what’s on their feed, it’s. Completely fine. Just unfollow. 

Angie:  So it does look like, you know, Marie Kondo-ing, works even for social media consumption.  does it spark joy.

Well, the main question is, does it not swallow up all your time? 

Jerusha: Or you have Netflix on your phone, on your computer, whatever it is. And you have so many to choose from. So what happens is your, all your energy is going on choosing things that shouldn’t actually matter

 so you have decision fatigue. Every time you get an email, you have to make a decision. Right. 

And it’s kind of funny because we always talk about, Oh yeah, we’re going to have this digital future. But I feel like this year would have given people a glimpse into what that would be like.  

Sushi:  We’ve also heard and from some listeners about how working remotely has been difficult to say the least right. Working from home means taking more household responsibilities, which aren’t exactly schedulable. And  it also makes us think about what taking a break truly looks like.

 Angie: and when you’re at work physically in the office, there are some serendipitous activities that you end up doing, like, you know, solving a crossword with your colleague or having that 10 minute chai break, which brought us together,  We do have plenty of tools to ensure digital productivity.

But what about these kinds of, serendipitous moments? how do we bring that into the digital world? 

Sushi: speaking of colleagues and the workplace, some of you also had questions about office politics and how that affects us as creatives. I personally think that as creatives, we tend to internalize these politics more so, and it really affects our ability to do quality work sometimes. So, especially if you’re working for a client and the client is being really toxic, obviously the best work is not going to come out of it because you know, it’s not about adding up stuff on a spreadsheet.

It’s about coming up with solutions to something it’s about creativity.  So you just need that space to think. And so how can we better handle our emotions?  

Nithya: Some things are easier said than done. That being said, are there toxic places? Yeah. Are there toxic people? Yeah. Will they cease to exist? Nope. I think what is important to develop is how would I navigate this? And I would play so much importance on the I because, the answer is not true for everybody.

There are some people who are very much affected by office politics. There are some people who are not.  So it’s really about finding out my particular style in the workplace. What do I want to bring in? What do I want to take back? Who do I want to engage with and how. and why, w why is say that it’s much more easier said than done is because like all of this. It’s not something we don’t know.

Like all of us have read about this enough. There is enough Instagram post saying you are valuable sister. and like put yourself first. But the how of putting ourselves first is a very difficult task because it requires pissing off people. It requires, putting harsh boundaries and harsh boundaries will mean that people who have been treating you like a doormat will no longer get to benefit from you anymore. But I think a lot of that really comes from, self-work not comes from, I’m gonna solve this thing in the office and everything’s going to be  rosy.

it comes from a lot of, okay, this is what’s working for me. This is, what’s not working for me and to ask oneself. Okay. Is it worth it for me to bring this up with my team and my, and my colleagues? And some workplaces are super open to it, right. That they’re like, okay, bring up your issues. And when people say, bring up our issues, some of us realize that we’ve never actually done it.

We’ve never actually gone up to our bosses and said, this is not working for me. We’ve just complained about it in our heads, complained about it to our partners. But we never actually said, this is not working for me. These are my proposed solutions. What can we do about it? We haven’t put our best out there.

Sushi: Nithya also talks about going beyond office politics and building an ecosystem of support in the workplace instead. 

 Nithya: And it’s hard. Corporate is not ready for it. Clients aren’t ready for it. It’s easy for us to talk about it, but for an entire workforce to put productivity aside and say, okay, it matters to me what my employee is feeling or what my colleague is feeling and whether their daily life is influencing their work.

It matters to me is a hard decision to take, but we can take it for ourselves. Like we can say, I’m going to ask my colleagues every day if they’re feeling okay. And if there is any way I can support them, I can offer that. That’s one little thing that I can do. But in terms of like harassment, I do know that.

Most often there is going to be so much alienation in the workplace is even if somebody complains to HR or, or brings it up, that people are going to look at that person badly or weirdly. Or with suspicion, I think it’s important as allies, especially since the two of you are asking me to also stand up to that colleague and to go up to them, give them flowers and say, Hey, congratulations on standing up to your abuser.

I’m really proud of you for doing so. I don’t think we’re with as generous with compliments and, and love and, and, and compassion as we are with, with complaints.

Angie: The the same thing that gives us community, like you said, the same thing that gives us support tends to also alienate some others sometimes. So people feel , like left out, right? Yeah, so, and then we question ourselves like -Is there something wrong with me? Is that something I have not accomplished yet? That I am not part of this club. And sometimes it’s about the institutions you go to, the places you work at the big, companies that you work at.  coming back to how creators we put our selves into this, right? Our whole identity sometimes is into whether I’m part of this group or not, but that so-and-so knows my name or not. 

Nithya: this thing about communities versus cliques, clubs, I liked that theres weightage behind that word.

It’s there everywhere. Right. Like it’s, it’s there everywhere. There are, niche organizations that are, ingroups and outgroups, and that’s how all of human civilization functions it’s really about finding out. Can we bridge the gap just enough for us to be civil with each other, but it is not possible for everyone to belong everywhere.

It’s not possible. 

So it’s important that while we question, do I not belong there? It’s also important to question, do I want to belong there? Is this something that my values also allow me to belong. And sometimes our time will come and it’s just not now. It doesn’t mean that our work and our worth is not valuable because it’s not been recognized by a club.

Sushi: As a community, we tend to talk so much about impact and how design is going to save the world. Right? So it’s frustrating that the solution to some of these most pressing issues lies with economists or politicians.

Angie: One of your listeners also told us, this right about how you’re feeling unable to contribute to the bigger issues in the world in a meaningful way.  and you feel like, you know, everyday you go to work and you work on something and then you feel what’s the real point of the exact thing I’m working on right now.

Nithya:  Like there’s so much pleasure there on an individual make impact while it’s actually systemic impact that we should be more concerned about.  our impact personal impact as individuals might be very, very tiny, but they may contribute to the sea of impact systematically. So I think it’s on one hand, it’s very important not to hold ourselves to super high standards. There are very, very few people in this world.

Who are able to bring about large scale, systemic impact. It’s okay for some of us to tag along and support their vision. and it is not important that all of us need to become influencers. All of us cannot be, all of us have our own colleagues, have our own skillsets, have our own, valuable meaning that we can provide to the world.

And that valuable meaning may come in a value that you teach your child. And to say, Hey, be more kinder to the homeless people on the streets. be more loving to a friend who is being bullying and, and understand why they are, or like reach out to have a conversation.  I must say I would ask people why they would tie all of that worth to their work. Are they worthy, even if they are not working or designing all the time and if human beings are inherently worthy, then I bet we’re already adding value.

Angie: We also forget the all important role art and design has in communication or in moving things forward. Right? we usually think that design leadership is all about us taking the calls and making front-page news. but even something as simple as if I can make a better experience map for a product I can help non-designers in my team, see areas that they could not have seen otherwise. And that is impact in its own  right. And sometimes not every type of impact can be quantified.

Sushi: I love that. And I also liked that you mentioned quantifying because that ties in with how we measure our productivity as designers. In part two of this episode, we are going to talk more about how we relate to our work and measure our worth as creative people. Before we go, we’ll leave you with a few mindset tips. 

Angie: Think of yourself as your biggest asset and invest in yourself, whether it’s your skills. Your health or your mental peace


Sushi: of your schedule and your way of working as a design problem so that you can design your own work style with experimentation and iteration.

 Angie: understand your unique role as a designer and let that be your yardstick in moving you forward.

Sushi: And remember that it’s not a race.

  Angie: Hey listeners. Hope this episode left you feeling like you’re not alone in this.

Sushi: How have you been looking after yourself in 2020? DM us on Instagram or Twitter to share your thoughts?

Angie: The transcript for this episode, along with the references and resources will be available on our blog

Sushi: Stay tuned for part two of this episode.

Angie: Until then. Bye.


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