Hussain Manawer is a poet, and Honorary Fellow of King’s College London for his work in mental health. Debbie Gordon (Assistant to the Managing Editor) went along to meet him.
‘The psychological will always be there… it’s like my skeleton’
When did you decide that you were going to be a poet?
I was always writing when I was in school, but I didn't decide then. Even when I was at sixth form, university, I was always writing but I never called myself a poet.
I think I decided I was going to do it because of the lack of inspiration I was finding in today's world. I couldn't find people who were talking about the pain I was going through. I feel like we have different influences and different people who take us through different stages of our lives… I was like, 'Where's mine for right now?' And I couldn't find one. I needed to be that person. Surely I couldn't be the only person whose Mum had just died? I can't be the only person who hated uni, who's stressing about his hairline, all of these things. I wanted to talk about it the best way I knew.
I don't like talking a lot, which is weird, but I like performing. So one day I quit my job – 'I'm a poet!' My friends knew I'd been writing from school, so none of my inner circle were surprised, it was when I told the wider world. 'How can you be a poet?' 'Why can't I be?' To me, it's just someone talking about the realities of their lives. I talk about things, give it to the person, and it belongs to them now. That emotion, that's for you, my job's done. I know there's comfort in knowing you're not the only person.
And did you start out with poems, or was it diaries, or…
I was a rapper first. When I say rapper… I tried to rap. Because of So Solid Crew's '21 seconds', then Dizzee Rascal 'Boy in the corner', Eminem, all of those artists… that was just finishing. Then I was reading Caroline Duffy, Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Michael Rosen… I really started because of him! I was in Year 6, he had a rap: 'You may think I'm happy, you may think I'm sad, you may think I'm crazy, you may think I'm mad'… that hooked me, I was performing it in in assemblies and everything.
So that one bit of song changed your life?
100%. And I had two good English teachers. Where I lived, Gants Hill in Ilford, there's a big Jewish population and a massive Muslim population. My English teacher was Jewish, and growing up at a time when Islamophobia and all these things came to attention, there was none of that in the classroom… when it comes to education and words and art, colour goes out of the window. Miss Forbes said 'You need to write more', and my speaking and listening assessment in school was the only thing I did really well at… everything else was a failure.
We had a supply teacher one day, Michael Noakes, he found a poetry competition and said I should enter. I turned up, no idea what to expect, and there were all these poets doing mad things with words… I had found my tribe.
I got up and did my piece, and then the Slam Championships went round the whole country… from 10,000 people I got to the final 10. I was so overwhelmed with it all. I got to play at the Rise Festival in Finsbury Park.
What were those first efforts like?
One of them I actually performed at my biggest ever show, in London. 900 people. I told nobody it was my first piece, and people reacted to it as if it was now. That was interesting. It's about how you deliver it. Some pieces were amazing, some were trash.
That's part of the process with any art.
Yes... but the ones I love the most, the public don't really warm to. I guess they mean so much to me, as a person… I get to keep all the really personal stuff to myself, and I like that.
Tell me about the One World Summit.
There was a competition – if you could change the world, how would you change it? You could win a trip to space. I'd never won anything in my life before, not even a sticker in school assembly. I entered it… 90 countries, 30,000 people, final stage in Thailand 2015. I delivered this speech, 'My name is Hussain' and I win.
Unfortunately the space trip isn't happening, the company went bankrupt. The way I see it, Earth needed me more!
Your Mum didn't want you to go anyway!
The day before my Mum passed away – we didn't know she was going to die, it was a sudden death – she said to me 'I don't want you to go to space'. The decision was hers, she took it with her.
Mental health is a regular theme in your work: why is it so important to you?
Because it affects so many people I know. It ruins lives, destroys homes… it can ostracise people from their loved ones, because people don't have time to understand what people are going through. I think I have a responsibility to normalise it. In my community, coming from Ilford, East London, British, Asian, Pakistani, coming home and saying you have a mental health issue, the response will naturally be 'what have you got to be depressed about?' Our grandparents and their grandparents came to England and had to do proper hard labour. 'When I came here I didn't have a house. You have a house. Why are you upset?'
So there's no time for the different cultures to understand each other, which is why we all keep clashing. I see it every day, and it's so heartbreaking. I'm lucky to have friends and family who take time to understand. If I didn't have that, god knows where I would be.
There are people in my life I can't help, but I can help other people. If I carry on helping other people, someone will come and help the people in my life that need the help. Because you don't listen to the people you're closest to… your friends will tell you a million times, 'don't go and sleep with that person', but you'll still do it. But if you saw a random person in the street saying 'value yourself', you'll take it from them.
I've been talking about these issues for years… it's good that they get brought up in society now, but people need answers. A lot of the answers come through education, it can't just be about wearing a wristband to show you support people. Real support…
My live show is a poetry concert, I have support acts. Both of my support acts from my last show, I support them in their real life. One of them has been to a mental health hospital three times. I stayed in his life, kept talking to him, and I believe people undervalue the word support. You need to be there the whole way through, but often people don't know how.
On Facebook at the moment, there's a clip of a guy obviously in distress on the tube, and an elderly lady is the only one who goes to him, offers her hand, shows support.
This is the thing, people say 'ask for help'. But how are you supposed to ask for something that you don't get?
People ask me to go visit them, but I can't do that, I'm not a doctor, a healer, a shrink… I'm just somebody who raises awareness and uses my platform to try to make a solution. But when I do see certain things, I think 'this person may have psychosis', or 'this might be post traumatic stress', and you're just telling them to get out of bed? It's deeper. There's so many complex layers.
It's the same with drug or alcohol problems… if we can look and understand there's been a level of hurt in their lives, and all they're trying to do is…
…numb the pain. Yes. Society is in a fragmented place. We glamourise drink and drugs. Look at your social media feed. Every night. Making it look like you're having a good time. Getting a free pass, because you're not hiding no more. We've got a lot of work to do as a community and society.
I've also heard you address the issue of culture in mental health. Why do you think there appear to be barriers for minorities seeking help?
The lack of understanding, and the lack of education given to people as a whole. If we trace this back, in my family, my grandmother would have a bath in a bowl. Her toilet a hole in the floor, she comes from a farm. She will not understand what post-traumatic stress disorder is. She did not have the luxury of going to university, reading books, listening to podcasts, really getting an understanding of these things.
My Dad now, after coming to my shows, might talk about anxiety, trauma. For a Pakistani man to do that is a very big deal. On Instagram, thousands of people message me 'My family don't understand'. Why aren't we doing anything to educate the families?
I'm not sitting here saying 'Our parents are dicks'. My Mum and Dad had a different set of worries, as I'm sure yours did. Although we have adopted new pressures, and we don't know how to tackle it.
We have to go back into communities, educate them… but it's also down to wider society to understand cultural sensitivity. If you call a child's parents into school to say the child is depressed, are you aware of what you have done in that child's home? Their parents aren't equipped to deal with it. We need to bring our families in, and start learning as one. There's so much we can learn from each other's cultures which would bring us together, not divide us. My band mates are Christian, I'll ask them questions, then we'll go to friends of other religions… our unity is immaculate, why can't the world be like this?
Why do you think men find it harder to speak up and seek help?
I think a lot of it is pride, they don't want to be seen as weak. But also, not a lot of men know how to ask for help, or are fortunate enough to have real friends around them that they can have an honest conversation with. The moment you try to have a serious conversation, the room goes dead. The fastest growing suicide rate is men. Why? Because they don't know how to talk, to communicate, society calls them trash. I shouldn't be held accountable for what another man does, but all these things are being pushed onto men and they don't know how to deal with it. I see it with people I've known all my life, they're only now slowly starting to talk, but that's only because of the job I have.
One of my friends overthinks so much… I ask him 'have you talked to your boss about it?', he says 'are you crazy, I would never do that!'
In my work, I really want people to understand that everyone is going through something. You have no idea.
Instagram portrays this wonderful life…
…it doesn't exist. That's why I try to keep it as real as it possibly can. Don't get into a war with yourself, you don't need to, you don't deserve that.
Do you think that poetry and music can really make a difference then?
Definitely. The amount of poets coming out of my area of London, doing poetry about this type of stuff… it's having a ripple effect. It starts conversations. A powerful conversation can save somebody's life. We're part of the scrolling generation, just scrolling through social media, but the moment you see one thing and it hits you… you've started a conversation. We have to look at the poets, writers, artists, journalists, people who are using their skills for the good of the world to guide us through these situations. We're all so dangerous to ourselves. Yesterday, I was in Nando's, and this woman came in… she was a nurse in a hospice, and she said she shows all her patients my videos. And there was a man, who contacted me to say he'd felt suicidal, laid down by his Mum's grave, but watching my videos pulled him out of it.
So I hear loads of empowering stories about people who have come out of it, but you never hear the ones who didn't make it through. There's one person in my life who took his own life, and when I see his picture or name, it's 'Why did I not know? How did I not know?' There were signs… he uploaded a picture of a tree that had been snapped in half, had Sellotape around it, he wrote 'Me, trying to hold my life together right now'. We were all like 'Ha ha real funny yeah me too!' The next day he killed himself. He was telling us, but we didn't listen. And he didn't have the words to speak.
So that's why if people come up to me I'm never rude, or make it about me. The things I talk about aren't Gucci and Rolex… 'You've gone through some real shit if you're talking to me!'
That's why I'm going to start my podcast. I can really talk about things and get them out there, use my network of people – Ben Shepherd, Jeremy Vine – ask them to come on and talk. Even boxers… these guys train for 12 three-minute rounds, but what happens after that? What if it didn't go to plan? The world was watching you and now what? Are we really supporting all these athletes we hold up? They're our role models… if they fall, we all fall.
When did you realise you were having mental health struggles yourself?
Probably in university. I hated uni. I was studying for a degree in Quantity Surveying. I just didn't want to be there. Growing up with all these American movies, 'oh my god it's going to be great!', and then it was the worst time of my life. That threw me off for a long time. I put an act on, going home and pretending to my family I was loving it.
But you finished?
I got a 2:2. I had so much help from my best friend. But it was hard. A lot of people go through university in the wrong place, not studying what they want. You really need to think about it. Sometimes when I go into a school, and I'm asked 'tell them about uni', I'm like 'listen, I can tell them, doesn't mean they're going to listen! Let them do it themselves'. I never thought I was going to be this person, so I don't want to stand here and say 'don't do this'.
If I went back, or had the option now, I would 100 per cent do a Psychology degree. Anthropology as well. I might do it, who knows. I'm really fascinated by it. Why we think things, the study of people. Situations, emotions, thoughts, I love it. If only I had known this then.
What was the response when you dropped the act, when you first started speaking about mental health issues?
I think the first time I properly told my friends was in a WhatsApp group. They were proper chilled about it: 'why didn't you tell us earlier?' The most comforting thing was 'What can I do?'
You didn't expect that reaction?
I don't expect nothing from nobody. So when my friends say 'what can I do to help you?', that's enough – knowing that I have you to help me.
Being open about mental health issues with your friends, did they start to respond with their own?
Yes, it made us all closer. So much closer. 'I love you, take care, have a good day'…
So it's completely changed the dynamic?
Yes, and I've known them since Year 2. We talk all the time. One of them is so cute… he messaged me, 'Yo'. 'Yeah?' 'I'm checking in.' 'You getting a flight?' 'No, I read an interview about you on the internet and you said you like it when your friends check in… am I doing it right?' The most normal guy. I've done my job, you know? He's aware.
I think what I've definitely done in my friendship group is normalise a bunch of things. I've shown them you can go through things and it will make you stronger. We all show each other that. When my Mum died, I took it to Instagram and Twitter… 'I can't sleep, I need to get it out'. It started fuelling so many conversations in our friendship group, we bonded even more, through pain.
Let's talk about the impact of social media on mental health.
It can be used as good. But it's a bad world out there on the internet, man… it's a bad place. And I do fear for young people. I'm not talking about teenagers, I mean younger than that now. 9, 10, 11, 12. Their brains and minds are so innocent, pure, they don't need to see this stuff. Let them grow in their own time.
I've had experiences myself, as a parent. I don't think some parents really get it.
We all need to educate ourselves and each other.
Talking of mental health lessons, you did a pretty large one…
Yes, I set the Guinness World Record for the world's largest mental health lesson. It got beat last year in fact, by a professor in Australia. I was happy… I might come back for my title though!
Guinness World Records, when you're a kid, you're fascinated by it. So I thought we needed one around mental health, and education. And it needs to be set by young people. I went to King's College and I said 'let's do this together'. Hackney Empire gave us the venue for free, Samaritans were on site… we had 19 schools come down, organised by me and my friends. No events company, just us lot in a WhatsApp group. We did well. All sorts of celebrity guests peppered throughout the audience. On top of that, a psychologist – Professor Til Wykes – talking to the kids about it. They loved it. Education and entertainment will get you engagement. That's what I try to do.
So do you think that mental health lessons should be compulsory in schools?
I think I read an article that's happening now. But also I think therapists, and therapy dogs, should be in all schools. The earlier we can get people talking about how they are feeling, the better they are to able to handle the world.
How do you handle so many roles?
I time manage everything really well, I think. I have a lot of people working with me, and I just don't stop. There are so many things I want to do. I'm writing for a big soap this year, as part of their mental health storyline. I'm doing stuff with some really big organisations. If it's not going to come from the government, I can't wait for people to come to me, I just need to be doing it.
I never really planned to do this with my life, but now I'm doing it I want to do it properly. It's a responsibility. I try to remember, 'conduct yourself right… but also be you'. You can easily forget.
So who inspires you?
I always think about this, and never get the answer I want to say until I've left! But I think it's different people at different times. Jason Statham, the actor. I love how he conducts his private life. I see him on TV, doing his acting, and then I don't see him. That's how it should be. I've bumped into him a few times and he's very normal, down to earth. That's inspiring.
Not by his actions but by his story – Connor McGregor the mixed-martial arts fighter. His self-belief. He was going to do what he was going to do.
Princess Diana. I went to Clarence House once. I'm inspired by the way people behave, as opposed to what they've achieved. Ed Sheeran too.
You've talked before about being from a humble background, yet becoming an ambassador for voiceless youth. What advice would you offer aspiring artists for getting their voices heard?
Make more mistakes. Listen to nobody. Trust your heart.
When you're young you can make mistakes. The moment you start listening to other people, you won't get to where you want to go, you'll get to where they want you to get to. Trust yourself. That's something I tell myself every day.
Where next for you – will the psychological remain with you on that journey?
I think it will always be there… it's like my skeleton. I'm looking at the avenues of influence, what gets to people, what do they trust and listen to? It's the radio, television, the internet. How can I contribute to these with my authentic message? In a thought-provoking and entertaining way? But I still love doing live stuff too.
There's a few people I want to sit down with and have a conversation, see what we can do. Leonardo Di Caprio. I watch his movies and can't sleep. The dedication, everything. Where did you get this willpower, how did you build that mind of yours?
So with my podcast, I want it to be one of the greatest podcasts that ever existed. 'Man to Man' I want to call it.
But the psychological will always be there. I get sent so many books… I need to put my foot down now and get in it properly. I made a bit of noise and people are like 'oh, who's this?' Now I need to do my homework.
- Find more about Hussain at www.hussainmanawer.com
Photo by Tina Vedrine
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