They say that you should never meet your heroes. But when I spied Natasha Devon at a mental health conference in October, I couldn’t help myself. For all those who are unfamiliar with Natasha, she started The Self Esteem Team – an initiative that runs workshops in schools to educate both students and teachers on the importance of mental wellbeing. I also know her as a columnist for Cosmopolitan, a strong advocate of healthy body image and for being one of the few people in the world to shut Katie Hopkins up!
As I approached her at the conference my brain was screaming “what the f**K are you doing, why on earth would she want to talk to you?” But to my delight, she was lovely and agreed to let me interview her over lunch later in the month. I use the term ‘interview’ loosely, because it was at best a chat/me rambling on for an hour.
I spotted her across the room instantly in Carluccios, (you can’t beat Italian food). Although tbh, she’s impossible to miss. Long red hair, a strikingly gorgeous black lace dress and staring intently at her phone. The phrase “Oh my God, you’re going to make a fool of yourself” circulated through my brain. But then I thought “f**k it.. if I do then at least I’ll have an interesting story to tell!”
She greeted me warmly, but with that infamous “I don’t take any crap” face I’ve seen so many times on TV. I immediately ordered a glass of wine (obviously).
My regular readers will know that the majority of my issues began at secondary school. Therefore, educating teenagers on the importance of mental health is a cause very close to my heart. I spent years believing that I was ugly and stupid. Thanks to both the media and my peers, I also believed that if I could just have blonde hair, big tits and a golden tan, then all of my problems would be over. (I grew up during the WAG era. Looking like a footballers wife was the ultimate goal). So I dyed my naturally dark brown hair platinum blonde, which in reality went a horrendous orange gold colour, I stuffed chicken fillets down my bra and wore cheap fake tan. All photos from this period have been destroyed!
Nevertheless, by the age of fourteen I’d developed some very obvious symptoms of anxiety. With the exception of my mum I didn’t really tell anyone, because well who would listen to me? This is the first point that Natasha is obviously very passionate about
“Getting people in a position of power to take the mental wellbeing of children seriously is difficult. Many seem to have a reset button when they reach the age of twenty and forget what it’s like to be a teenager. Some of the adults I’ve spoken to simply call it character building, which is misconstrued.”
I couldn’t agree more, I think there’s a real difference between character building and mentally scarring!
Even at the age of twenty eight, teenagers still intimidate me. Mainly because they have zero filters, and don’t shy away from being vicious with their words. So I think that what The Self Esteem Team does is fantastic, but I also had to ask.. how do you get them to accept you?
“Teenagers have an incredibly fine-tuned detector for bull shit, so it’s simple… don’t lie to them. In a way I’m in a better position than their teachers. For example, if they’re not listening then I stop talking, and I’m happy to be assertive and tell them why I’ve stopped talking. I also like to treat every kid the same and purposely ask teachers to refrain from pointing out the difficult ones.”
Natasha is not one to tell a teenager that if he/she smokes weed then they’ll end up in prison, (because we all know the reality of that). Instead she’d ask why they felt the need to do it, and explain that it’s a short term fix for a problem that could be tackled another way. It’s a refreshing perspective and I think that most would appreciate such honesty.
I found myself opening up about my own experiences and she didn’t flinch once -I’m used to seeing what I call ‘the face’. However, mental chat is normal to her and it felt very liberating to talk about panic attacks in the same way that I would a headache.
She told me something that her mother used to ask when she was child “If I said that I felt unwell, she would always ask – in your body or your mind?”
For me this hits the nail on the head perfectly. If we normalise and value mental health then people will talk about it more freely, thereby reducing the stigma. We all have a brain, so surely we all have mental health?!
Without a doubt, Natasha is intimidating, her presence is both fearless and self-assured. So after a large gulp of wine, I asked her about this. Does she ever find it difficult to connect with those, who perhaps due to a mental health condition are nervous about being open with her? She pauses and thinks about this for a while.
“I hope not. It’s true I’ve always been very Alan Sugar like, that’s just part of my personality. However, I think that people respond to me because I’m genuine and I do really care. I’m not the type to sit there with a sweet sympathetic smile, making false promises. If I say that I’m going to help you, then I will.”
This answer sums up my opinion of Natasha perfectly… in three words ‘I believe her’ – When I read her writing, watch her on TV, or listen to her speak, I have faith in what she says, and that’s very important. She does want to help teenagers improve their self-esteem, she fights relentlessly to highlight negative body image campaigns in the media, and she point blank refuses to be a puppet for the Conservative government, (she’s the ambassador for mental health).
“I don’t think they were expecting me to be quite so vocal as I am. I don’t ask permission, I simply tell them what I’m going to do. I received a great deal of criticism from the press when I took the position because… well I’m a women’s magazine columnist who suddenly decided to get involved in politics. What do I know about government policy?”
I admire her strength and determination, and ultimately believe that her personality is a good fit for the task at hand. Having a soldier on the front line, one who isn’t afraid to debate fiercely with opponents, (often on live TV) is what ultimately will help mental health get the attention and funding that it deserves.
As we get up to leave I clumsily knock the salt shaker over and drop my bag on the floor. (Natasha politely pretends not to notice).
I’m shaking as I walk to the tube station, but I feel as though I’ve just met a legend. It’s great to know that she and The Self Esteem Team are out there making a difference in every school that they visit.
For more information, I would highly recommend reading her Mental Health Manifesto – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/11831455/My-Mental-Health-Manifesto-for-Britains-schoolchildren.html