Liz Fraser talks about "basic first aid for mental health" and her new website

Image credit: Qiuying Lai

“It was either this or laundry”, Liz Fraser modestly joked whilst being thanked for giving her talk at the Union on Monday evening, but her light-hearted manner of speaking did not detract from the serious message of her speech: let’s have an honest conversation about mental health. Already a writer, broadcaster, and comedian, Fraser is currently pushing her latest venture Headcase, a new website and app helping to “demystify mental health”, expected to be live early next year, and this is where we start when I sit down to talk with her after her speech.

“I launched Headcase two years ago and it was a bit like opening a coffee shop and ten million people come to buy coffee and you run out in about an hour”, she summarises with a smile, before telling me the demand was not only physically overwhelming but mentally too. “People were writing to me with very personal stories who were clearly vulnerable people and you have to reply to that, how can you not?” She admits that Headcase has had some downtime over the last 12 months which she candidly describes as “the worst year of my life” but given the technological changes since then, she says “the time is much better now”.

We talk about the role the internet has to play in the conversation about mental health and the potential risks that it poses, but Fraser seems aware of how online forums can perpetuate or even encourage mental health problems. “You couldn’t do it without [the internet]. Of course it is a double-edged sword, and Headcase, for example, will have no forums at all… because I think there is such an inherent danger there.”

“We know this, we know about triggers, we know about the damage that can do… The internet can be really dangerous for stuff like this unfortunately, but so it can for everything.” But she remains optimistic about what Headcase can provide, by paralleling the treatment for the mind with that of the body. “I want to have basic first aid for mental health… We learn about burns, and breathing, the recovery position… but if you ask someone the top five things you should ask someone with depression, and what are the top five things you should never do, what do you say to someone with an eating disorder… nobody has a clue.”

There is a clear sense from listening to her that not only does she understand what the issues are with supporting those with mental health but that she cares personally about them too. Clearly her desire to help people is borne from her own experiences. In a guest column written for TCS two years ago she recounted her experiences of suffering from an eating disorder during her first year reading Natural Sciences at Clare College, and to me she talks about the pain she has felt at times over the last year.

I ask her about something she talked about in her speech, about what the best approach is for helping someone suffering from a mental illness; whether being ‘cruel to be kind’ and leaving someone to seek help themselves can sometimes have the disadvantage of being harsh, and she agrees, with reservations. “You can go either way. A lot of people who have had a very serious mental health issue at some point in their life, and have come through it, have said ‘I am so glad that someone was really hard on me’… There is a lot to be said I think for at least acknowledging that maybe you need to actually give the sufferer some power... and saying ‘I really think you can turn this around’. It is a harsh message and it doesn’t apply to everybody, at all, that is really important, you have to gauge each person.”

We finish by talking about the future of Headcase and it is clear that Fraser has thought about this before. “I want it to be like Starbucks or Nike, a thing that is a part of your life, I want it to be global”. She describes the big picture as having Headcase representatives in businesses, schools, universities; education packs in primary schools and nurseries; working with the government, and even the Headcase logo on hats and bags. “I have big plans, I see big, I dream big” she tells me “but I think it’s not impossible.”

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