The self-esteem team is made up of columnist & campaigner Natasha Devon MBE, musician Grace Barrett and showbiz editor Nadia Mendoza. Each have a passion for challenging stereotypes and reducing the current stigma surrounding mental health issues. The girls have worked with over 50,000 teenagers across the UK, achieved a House of Commons award and are now publishing a book to reach wider audiences and get their message across. I got the opportunity to ask Natasha some questions about their mission, the honesty in their new book and advice for anybody suffering from low self-esteem or mental health issues.
Q - Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new book The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs and WTFs?! which comes out on the 20th August and has been described as an “honest, funny and compassionate” book. Having visited many schools and helped thousands of teenagers, what was your main goal when deciding to write the book? Did you feel an honest and open book like this was missing from the YA world?
A – On average, we have about an hour per entire year group when we visit schools. The budgets and timetables for PSHE are so tight, particularly in state schools. We throw a lot of information at our students in that hour slot because we try and pack in as much as possible and we quite often get emails saying “that thing you said about such and such, could you just go over it again?” We wanted to create something we could leave behind that had all our little nuggets of wisdom in it. The very nature of sensitive topics like mental health and body image means you need time to reflect and absorb the information you’ve been given and it’s useful to have something to refer to whilst you’re doing it.
We’re also very aware that we’re only three people and it would be physically impossible for us to visit every school in the land so we wanted to reach out to other teenagers who hadn’t had a visit from us.
Q – Your new book covers friendships, bullying, eating disorders, drugs, sex & sexting and many other issues that teens struggle with. How else would you describe the contents of your book if you were convincing somebody to read it?
A – Think of The Self-Esteem Team as your three older sisters – We’re in your corner, we’ve been there and done that and won’t judge you, but we also only want the best things for you.
Teachers’ advice tends to come from a place of being very restricted in what they can say, which is why you’ll often hear ‘if you take drugs you’ll DEFINITELY DIE/GO TO PRISON!’ in school assemblies. This creates a ‘truth gap’ because the first time you meet someone who took drugs and didn’t die/go to prison, you’ll assume you were lied to/patronised.
Parents, conversely, are often motivated by fear or by thinking that their children are different from the rest and perfect little angels who have never masturbated. (This is completely understandable. Even when I thought about my 15 year old niece reading our book I was a bit “eek!” about the whole thing).
So the upshot is there was a gap in the market for someone with experience, who understands teen issues, is far enough removed to be objective but still cares about your wellbeing and happiness, to dish out some advice. And that’s where we come in.
Plus the brilliant author Polly Vernon said it was really funny. And she is always right about everything.
Q – When it comes to YA fiction, do you believe there is enough out there to tackle the stigma attached to mental health and cover issues like low self-esteem? Books such as All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and Am I Normal Yet? By Holly Bourne are examples of a growing ‘mental health’ genre in YA – what other books would you recommend?
A – I’m not sure I can answer this question because, to be honest, it never really occurred to us when we were writing the book that we were writing ‘YA’. We don’t think of teenagers as being fundamentally different from anyone else – they face specific challenges, but then so does every demographic. We didn’t ever try to use a ‘teenage’ voice, though, because that’s when you run the risk of being patronising.
There are a million books I could recommend, but I’ll try and be succinct. Books that changed my life:
1. Kelsey Osgood’s ‘How to Disappear Completely’ is a brilliant insight into eating disorders and the problems of modern awareness-raising,
2. Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari is amazing on drug addiction, why it happens and how each country around the world reacts to the phenomenon,
3. Fat is a Feminist Issue by Dr Susie Orbach is a classic – written in 1973 but still totally on-point about the way women’s bodies are perceived in society,
4. Teenagers by Dr David Bainbridge is probably more aimed at parents but explains, from a reproductive biologist’s point of view, how the teenage brain works.
Also, our book is in some ways inspired by a book I read when I was 13 called ‘Thirteen Something’ by Jane Goldman. It’s not available online, but I did track a copy down in an independent bookshop in Norwich and ask them to send it to me recently and it’s still a fantastic read – Still relevant and really funny – My favourite chapter was ’100 things to do in the summer holiday’. You’ll never be bored again!
Q – For a lot of teenagers, they feel like they’re alone and that nobody understands what they’re going through. What advice would you give those people?
A – Everybody knows what it’s like to have a feeling. The advice we give is, if you’re going to, for example, try and talk to your friend about self-harming, talk about ‘whys’ not ‘hows’. Why do you do it? Are you lonely, frustrated, sad, angry? Everyone has experienced those feelings at some point. If you frame the conversation according to feelings, not actions, the other person should be able to relate.
I’d also caution to be wary of joining unregulated online forums because these can be incredibly triggering. Eating disorder support groups on Facebook, for example, almost always make people worse because they ‘normalise’ the issue. They also encourage you to form bonds with people who are also suffering which can lead to ‘buddying up’ and encouraging each other to become even more sick. We have a recommended list of websites where you can seek help and advice where that won’t happen because the web chats are monitored, so you know you are safe.
Q – Finally, what five tips would you give to somebody to help them build their self-esteem and become a more confident person?
1. Firstly and most crucially, don’t compare yourself to anyone else. No one is brilliant at everything, but everyone is brilliant at something. If you feel like that isn’t true of you, that just means you haven’t found whatever it is you’re brilliant at yet. Celebrate your individuality and realise that other people’s triumphs don’t mean that you are a failure.
2. Ask your friends what they like most about you. It’ll almost definitely be a quality you can’t see or measure – like humour, kindness, bravery, loyalty or glorious weirdness! Your value cannot be captured in a selfie – we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.
3. Remember that building good mental health is an ongoing process and it’s one you need to prioritise. Just as you know that eating 5 fruits and veg a day is good for your physical health, taking ten minutes to meditate, or write a diary or a to-do list, or to just breathe and do some stretches each day is essential for your mind set.
4. Get to know your ‘normal’ – because normal is different for everyone. So how much sleep do you need? What foods make you feel good after you’ve eaten them? How much exercise do you need to do to feel refreshed and invigorated? Once you know these things, they can become good indicators of when you are struggling emotionally.
5. My Dad once said to me “nothing is insurmountable apart from death”. That really helps me whenever I’m struggling with anything – Nothing lasts forever and whatever problem you are facing, there is almost certainly a solution.