The Wolf On My Back Posted on

I am sure you all know the fairytale about the big bad wolf? Well with my story there will never ever be a happy ending.

I know a wolf, currently he is living in the woods and has been for over 17 years, but I know full well he is going to come back to terrorise me at some point, he will make me feel vulnerable and helpless, he will scare the life out of me. When he gets close, I will go into hiding in a deep dark place where he can’t see me, it’s the only way I can protect myself from this horrible cruel monster.

Today as we come out of Covid-19, there are going to be a lot more wolves in the woods.
The main psychological impact to date has been the elevated rates of stress or anxiety. But as new measures and impacts are introduced – especially quarantine and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful addictions, self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise.

I was asked to write this article on depression and the links to Covid, but in particular the effect on the creative industry.

Make no mistake, this article is without doubt the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I am opening up my vulnerabilities and weaknesses that puts me at risk of the wolf coming back and doing some serious damage. I wonder what if my clients perceive me differently, what if my colleagues who read this see me as weak when I need to be strong.

I feel I need to speak out…

Fellow Agency people take note. Our sector has a big issue. People who work in the creative industry are three times more likely to experience issues with mental health and well-being than the general population. Shocked? You should be.

It gets worse. Last year, Ulster University released a report which stated that of the 574 people they interviewed 36% had been diagnosed with anxiety, 32% with depression and 60% had, at some point, considered suicidal thoughts.

Why is this?

In a quote on the BBC’s website Peter McBride of charity Inspire, who commissioned the research, said people who are creative are likely to be more in touch with their feelings.

That can mean they sometimes experience things differently or more deeply than other people, that’s part of their craft”.

Whilst that’s a broader view, there’s no denying that agency life can be stressful. Working tireless creative hours on a pitch, getting through to the final stages, to be told you lost it because your creative didn’t quite hit the mark or your strategy was too advanced is devastating.

And what do we do? Pick ourselves off the floor, dust ourselves down and then throw everything we have into trying to win another one, only for it to happen again 2 weeks later, it’s mental torture and cruelty at its highest and we have no real coping strategies in place.

I had a mental breakdown in early 2003 and as a result of that, over the years, I suffer from severe bouts of depression from time to time. Worst of all, I don’t know why. If we meet you would never know, I am told I have great energy, I always have a half full rather than half empty attitude to life.

I have a relatively successful career, with 2 beautiful children and a wife which I adore, I have a job I love, I did travel the world (Before Covid). I am after all a person who should never be depressed, there are far more people in the world that have a reason to be sad, anxious and vulnerable especially at a time of global crisis.

And yet despite all of this, without warning I can feel like the loneliest person on the planet, its a horrible crushing black hole of pain that is never ending. I am also a proud man where I believe it’s important that my children and colleagues see me as a role model and a strong support for them, being weak and vulnerable is not an option.

Depression is the wolf on my back, and the wolf knows this, he sees through the insecurities and knows when to attack, so you would think during the last 4 months of Covid-19 and the stresses of lockdown my illness would have affected me more than most.


Over 100 years ago I would have been whisked away to an asylum accused of being a danger to society, the keys would have been thrown away. Today it’s different even though sadly the stigma is there. I have fortunately learned over the years to understand that the wolf will be with me for the rest of my life and there is nothing I can really do about it, for others it may be very different and they will have coping strategies. What’s right for one person is very different to someone else.

17 years on and what I would say today is that in general and in theory, I’m quite good at being open with people about mental health however I am still cautious on the information I give away. When I am entering my dark phase, I am conscious of it and often will try and deflect it by pretending the wolf isn’t coming. And therefore sometimes that will trigger me at the right moment to hopefully say and do the right thing. My wife has been the rock that never judges me for the way I am feeling, she listens and encourages to be open.

All I can say is to every person in this industry, it’s always benefitted me to be open. I can’t in all honesty say to everybody in all of their different circumstances “It will benefit you to be open.” Because the truth is I’m afraid because of the stigma, because of the taboo, because of the discrimination that does sometimes exist, it could be worse for some people. And I think if all of us could somehow make the leap together to be more open, than all of us, the ill and the non ill would be better off.

So please I plead with you, if you can’t cope, even if you’re struggling or feeling overwhelmed, reach out and talk. There are some wonderful organisations and professionals where you can talk, and one thing I can promise you, is you are not EVER alone.

I am proud of that fact that working for MCN the group has come into its own, especially with mental wellbeing. They have provided weekly free webinars for all employees about how to cope with anxieties, and managing situations when you emotionally struggle, whether it be how to manage emotional wellbeing of children parental homeschooling, or the basics such as eating well, and staying fit.

With everything that is happening in the world our mental well-being is being tested to the limit. We are part of a creative industry that also is more susceptible to mental health illness. Now is the time more than ever before to reach out to our colleagues, friends and family and recognise the changes we see in their behaviour, the mood swings, the subdued, the angry. And maybe, just maybe, realise that they aren’t being difficult or a pain in the ass, they just maybe suffering and in need of a little bit of help.

I have come to terms that I will always have my illness, it’s just one of those things and as a result like any illness I have to accept it is a part of life, like having a vitamin deficiency.

The Wolf will always be there, I just have to learn to keep him at bay, If the wolf has suddenly come to pay you a visit during these horrible times, just remember, there are always people to talk to and give support. You’re not alone.

Matthew Butterworth, Managing Director, MullenLowe MENA