Last night a podcast saved my life

Exploring how podcasts (and podcasting) can make a positive difference to mental health in these troubled times

With war on the edge of Europe and the cost-of-living crisis increasing the existing pressures of our day-to-day (as if the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns hadn’t already done this enough) there is now, more than ever, a consensus that we should all be looking after our mental well-being a little bit more. 

With NHS waiting lists continuing to grow and other options for traditional therapy financially  inaccessible for many of us, it is likely that the 61% of adults with mental health conditions who aren’t accessing treatment in England, is set to increase.  As a result people are looking for alternative options for advice, support and community. This is where podcasts come in.

Creating and listening to podcasts provides an experience that is increasingly difficult to find in our fast-paced lives. Whether you are hosting an intimate conversation with a guest regarding their struggles with mental ill health or listening to that conversation on your commute to your nine-to-five, podcasts beautifully facilitate human connection. The intimate nature of their audio format also provides a safe, and – crucially – accessible space to have important conversations about topics that are often hard to navigate. 

The joy of creativity

Creativity has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to our mental well-being. Goldsmiths University Psychology Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya, in fact, highlights that “creativity can contribute to well-being by various means, including its relationship with positive emotions.” When it comes to podcasting – specifically mental health podcasts – there is an additional benefit which is rooted in the fact that they provide helpful content for others. Professor Bhattacharya explains that “engaging in a benevolent creativity task might protect from anxiety”. 

Tom Davies, the man behind the BPA-nominated The Proper Mental Podcast, explains that for him, his podcast is a “form of creativity”. Tom has previously struggled with his mental health and talks openly about this on his podcast. He explains that podcasting is “how I express myself; I can put ‘me’ into it – and that’s really good for my mental health”. 

Tipping Points is a podcast supported by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, where independent producer and host Peter Knapp interviews fellow scientists and professionals who are active in raising awareness about the climate crisis – but Knapp actually credits his podcast with saving his life.  

“I got to the point of depression that I was suicidal,” he says. 

Establishing his podcast provided him with a space to talk to like-minded individuals, creating a sense of community and belonging, and aiding his process of recovery. He explains that because his guests shared his knowledge and fears, “they understood everything I was feeling, and it made me feel like I was not alone”. 

By providing a space to have these difficult conversations, podcasting can also provide a release for negative emotions. In fact, Abi Perrin, one of Knapp’s guests on Tipping Points, feels that her interview created a space that was “less confrontational…than a face-to-face conversation” with someone she knew. 

“I think the real value of having that podcast out there for me was not just to communicate with a wider audience,” she says, “but actually to use it as a platform to have difficult conversations I was struggling to have with people I love.” 

Demystifying mental health

Louise Rumball took this idea a step further when she decided to livestream her therapy sessions for season one of her podcast Open House, saying “what better way to show people there is nothing to be ashamed of?”

“I think that podcasting provided me with a space for vulnerable discussion,” she says; “long-form vulnerable discussion, where 9.9 times out of 10 you’d only get someone listening to it if they cared.”

The significant thing about podcasting, she adds, is that “people only end up in that safe space if they are interested and are attending with respect”, and as a result they can allow themselves to be far more open and vulnerable on a podcast than they would other forms of media. Knapp concurs, explaining that “there are things that people would say in an interview that they wouldn’t say in a pub”. 

There are many reasons why people don’t seek help for their mental health. But one benefit of podcasts, points out Rumball, is that they can widen access to support and treatment. This is particularly the case following the increased emphasis on mental health as a result of  the COVID-19 pandemic. The likes of Fearne Cotton, with her Happy Place podcast, and Dr Alex George’s new Stompcast are arguably making these difficult conversations less daunting by bringing them to the mainstream and giving them an element of celebrity. In fact health and fitness podcasts represent the sixth most popular genre of podcast for UK listeners, placing higher than politics, pop culture and drama. 

Rumball says that when she found a therapist that worked for her, it made her realise how lucky she was to be able to access that, and it brought home to her that there are so many people out there who could never afford traditional therapy. 

“I was like: OK, I want to start a podcast and I want to bring the benefits of therapy to the masses without the price… Obviously, more severe mental health conditions are more challenging to deal with on a podcast,” she adds, but she still believes that with podcasting there is “huge space to deal with the more severe conditions.”

The challenge however is that, as Louise pointed out, she is not a mental health professional. As a result, she is aware of the caution with which she must approach her subject matter. In fact, it is for this reason that anything she does is supported by a clinical psychologist or therapist.  

When considering the value of mental health podcasting it is therefore important  to keep in mind that everyone will have different experiences of and reactions to the topics discussed – and both expert knowledge and compassion towards anyone that could be listening must be at the forefront of every decision made during the production process. 

Similarly, this same compassion should be shown to yourself as a presenter or producer of a mental health podcast. ‘‘I think it’s definitely important for anyone who holds space for others to make sure they are looking after themselves while doing so,’’ said Davies. For him this looks like being mindful of “how many episodes I record each week” and planning ahead “so I don’t have a few really challenging conversations back-to-back”. It also includes his usual self care routine: “I still go to regular therapy, I spend a lot of time in nature, I meditate and go to the gym.” 

With all that in mind PodPod would like to say thank goodness for podcasters! And to humbly suggest that in these challenging times, it’s a good idea for us all to consider the ways that podcasts and podcasting are benefiting our own mental wellbeing, plus to think of ways that we could be taking further advantage of them.