Banana Yazoo saved my life: my battle with mental illness
A view from Kerry Roper

Banana Yazoo saved my life: my battle with mental illness

Depression almost killed me. I'm writing this to tell other people who are struggling that they are not alone.

Nike commissioned me to design a T-shirt. Topshop commissioned me to design a T-shirt and installation piece. The V&A has three pieces of my work in its permanent collection. The Science Museum sells one of my designs. My logo is tiled into the floor of Quo Vadis.

I’ve won numerous awards. Last year, my obesity campaign for Cancer Research UK, featuring cigarette-pack designs, won Bravest Campaign of the Year.

I have a beautiful wife and daughter.

Some people regard me as one of the best designers in town.

Does any of this matter? Does. It. Fuck.

Not when I’m ill. 

Last year, I suffered from my most severe episode of depression. It floored me. It very nearly killed me. The diagnosis was psychotic depression. This was the first proper diagnosis I’ve had, which now puts me at peace.

Those who know me know that I’m not a negative or depressive kind of person. I’m the complete opposite, full of energy and positivity. These traits are not me putting a face on; they are who I am. Unfortunately, I can also suffer from bad anxiety and depression sometimes.

I didn’t work for six months because of this illness and the reason I’m writing this is because some people can’t understand or don’t get what depression is.

It’s not being a little bit sad or teary. It’s dark. It can kill.

It is the biggest killer of men under the age of 50. It doesn’t care who you are. You can be rich, you can be poor. It doesn’t discriminate.

I’ve lost two friends to suicide. The worst thing is, it can be prevented. Such a tragic waste of life. Every time I spoke to the mental-health crisis team and the doctors about how I felt, they said it was normal. Just like a cold. Mental illness has symptoms. And like many illnesses, it can be cured or healed over time with the right support and help.

I also believe that people who suffer have very different experiences and tolerance levels. What I’m writing here is just some of what I experienced.

Here’s a list of the emotions and experiences I went through during my four months of being ill: self-doubt, paranoia, hallucinations, psychosis, suicidal thoughts and a nice dollop of insomnia.

I ended up sectioned in hospital for a month. I refused food and water for three days. This is dangerous, as we know that your organs start shutting down after three days of no liquid. Your body starts eating itself in order to survive. They very nearly gave me electric shock therapy as a last resort. Luckily, I managed to get well enough for this not to happen. I’ve since been informed that it’s nothing like you see in the movies and I hope never to get to that place again.

Without my wife’s support, I would be dead by now. And nobody wants that. The doctors asked what my favourite drinks were and, me being a sucker for all things sweet, I love banana Yazoo. It saved my life. They allowed my wife to bring it on to the ward for me and it was the first time anything had passed my lips in three days.

The head psychiatrist said it was the worst case he had witnessed in his 40-year career. He said I was both blessed and cursed by the creative mind. To this point, he said that the reason Vincent van Gogh would have cut his own ear off would have been psychosis. A few weeks earlier while in hospital, I had tried to stab my own eyes out with a plastic straw from a juice carton. I felt no pain and have no recollection of it. 

Like all illnesses, mental illness has symptoms. What I learned and what helped me get better was that everything I was experiencing – the anxiety, the cold sweats, the paranoia, the self-doubt – was literally box-ticking against the list of symptoms. It helped me realise that I wasn’t crazy; I was just ill. It was "normal" to feel the way I did.

I have very little memory of my psychosis, but I’m currently getting the odd flashback and speaking to my wife and mum about it. Some of it is pretty grim and other bits are pretty funny.

Psychosis: the hospital removed a lot of stuff from my room to protect me from harming myself. I also thought I was in a tank with my best mates crossing Tower Bridge – one of the nicer ones. Some days I’d be chatty and other days I’d be restrained and injected. On a basic level, it’s probably like being on a massive LSD trip for days and days. It’s pretty amazing what the human brain is capable of. I won’t go into the darker stuff because it’s pretty grim and upsetting.

Hallucinations: one thing I vividly remember is the hallucinations I had. I’d see patterns almost like those 80s skateboard graphics in the vinyl flooring of my room. I don’t know if this was part of the psychosis or due to the fact that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for days. These kinds of hallucinations were pretty cool, to be honest.

Insomnia: now there’s a little beaut. Some nights I wouldn’t get any sleep. My brain went into catastrophic thinking mode. Every thought I had was negative – my career is fucked, I’d lose my family and everything around me and so on.   

The "S" word: I’ve had previous episodes of depression that were bad, but I’ve always managed to recover pretty quickly, plus I’ve always had warning signs. This time was different. No warning signs. I’ve had suicidal thoughts before but would never act on them. Unfortunately, these thoughts are just part of the package that depression brings. 

Guilt: shame and guilt are two strong emotions I’ve felt over the past few months. I’ve never not worked and this shitballs of an illness fucking floored me. I love people and I love design. 

Why am I writing this? I want to work with people who understand my disability and, by doing so, I’m hoping it doesn’t come back. I’m also writing it for the folk who don’t understand depression and anxiety, to hopefully demonstrate how real and how crippling it can be. I’m writing for the people who are experiencing this themselves, to know they are not alone and you are going to get through this. 

I’m capable of amazing craft and my book/portfolio demonstrates that. I’ve worked with some brilliant people, too, at brilliant agencies. I won’t let this illness define me and I hope by being open it doesn’t affect my career and helps others.

During my illness, Oli Beale [former executive creative director at Anomaly] kindly messaged me to tell me my obesity campaign was to feature on the BBC News at Six. Advertising saved me in a funny way. Seeing my work being talked about helped reignite my spark. A few days later, I left the apartment for the first time in four months. I was in safe hands with my family and the obesity campaign was everywhere. Inside I was saying to myself: "Fuck. I did that."

I’m not afraid any more. 

During the time that I was sectioned, my wife not only looked after my daughter while working full time, she also looked after all my emails and communications because I wasn’t capable. As I recovered and became well again, she mentioned that a headhunter had been in touch about a head of design role at Saatchi & Saatchi London. It had been five months since the email. I told her, fuck it, I’m going to give it a shot. By this time, my post about my battles had 600,000 views on LinkedIn in two days and hundreds of messages of support, with some people sharing their own mental-health battles. 

The headhunter responded and I had my first interview lined up with Saatchi & Saatchi’s chief creative officer, Guillermo Vega. They were aware of my battles and still gave me the role as head of design – something I’m super-proud of. The rest, my friends, is history.

Everyone is aware of my battles and not one single person has been negative about it. Saatchi & Saatchi has been supportive beyond words and so have past agencies I’ve worked at – MCBD, Dare and Anomaly. 

In my first few months at Saatchis, I have produced what I regard as the best work of my 21-year advertising career. The secret is simple: not only does Guillermo trust me, but so does everyone from management to teammates. Trust is important for the creative mind.

I genuinely don’t think I’ll be ill again.

A huge heartfelt thanks to Helen Calcraft, Danny Brooke-Taylor, Sean Thompson, Nigel Roberts, Tiger Savage, Oli Beale, Ben Mooge, Sam Hawkey, Sarah Jenkins, Richard Huntington, Magnus Djaba and many others who have helped me become the person I am.

Last, but not least, thank you to my wonderful wife and daughter.

Big love and thanks for reading.

Kerry Roper is head of design at Saatchi & Saatchi London