Gemma Styles: On ADHD, Community, and Activism

Illustration of Gemma Styles

Gemma Styles is a writer, podcaster, and mental health advocate who uses her platform to help an audience of over 9 million learn about various social issues and use that knowledge to do good.

Illustration of Gemma Styles
Gemma Styles / Illustration by Johnathan Huang for The Goodnewpaper

Her podcast “Good Influence with Gemma Styles” explores topics like feminism, climate action, housing insecurity, and more; all following a through-line of mental health, activism, and self-care in the digital age. 

Gemma is a good influence herself, sharing authentic stories about living with ADHD (and all the fun mental health experiences that come with it) on her blog, pod, and Instagram

Combining style (ha-ha) and action, she also has her own line of glasses — Gemma Styles Eyewear — some of which donate back to mental health research through her work as an ambassador with MQ Mental Health Research.

I am truly delighted to have had the opportunity to chat with Gemma about her work in the mental health world, connect about being women with ADHD, and revel in the beauty of doing good together. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gemma Styles
Illustration by Johnathan Huang for The Goodnewspaper

A Conversation with Gemma Styles

Kamrin Baker, Good Good Good: So, hi, I’m Kamrin! When I started at Good Good Good, a friend of mine messaged me and was like: ‘Gemma Styles follows Good Good Good on Instagram.’

And I knew we had to do something. So I’m so excited to have you today. We really admire you and all the work you do.

Gemma Styles: That’s so nice. I appreciate you having me. Thank you.

KB: Let’s jump right in! I’m curious how your platform online has helped you personally navigate your own mental health journey.

GS: I think it’s a funny one with social media and having a sizable platform because I think there’s definitely some positives and negatives to it, which is probably the case for social media and mental health as a whole.

There have been instances, especially several years ago now, where I would start talking about mental health or would first kind of mention something, and just having a really positive response from people is something really lovely. 

And I don’t take it for granted, because I’ll be honest, that even in the past year or so, I’ve done other work which has involved me kind of talking about mental health to a broader audience rather than just my own audience.

And it is a bit of a reminder that in general society, human beings aren’t always as open or as aware or kind of as clued up in the mental health space as I think. Sometimes it can be a bit easier to think that everyone is informed about mental health now that huge strides have been made.

So, that in itself has just made me appreciate the community that I do have all the more.

KB: Definitely. How have you seen that evolve? When I think of people who talk about mental health earlier on, on the Internet, I think of you and Zoella, these women sharing their experiences online. How have you seen that change over the last almost decade?

GS: Obviously, there are some people, probably myself included, who talk about mental health a lot. But I do think it’s much easier now to think of people who talk about mental health, and it’s easier to talk about now, I would say. 

I’m very aware that I say that as somebody whose mental health background is mainly in depression and anxiety. I know that’s not necessarily the case for people with other mental health conditions. 

I think it’s always quite important to recognize that when we have these conversations, because I don’t want it to be like, ‘oh, well, it’s all fixed now,’ because as far as wider mental illnesses go, I’m aware that the ones that I deal with are quite ‘palatable’ in the wider conversation.

There are just so many lovely people who really care, and that genuine kindness and caring does make me feel really inspired in the face of a lot of the opposite going on in the world. There’s that old saying, like ‘look for the helpers,’ and that genuinely does make me feel quite hopeful.

KB: That definitely makes sense. It also leads into my next question. You’ve talked a lot more in the last year about your diagnosis with ADHD. I’m also a late-in-life diagnosed ADHD person.

GS: Congratulations!

KB: Thank you, thank you. I loved your podcast episode with Ellie Middleton about neurodiversity. Can you tell me a little bit more about your experience as a woman with ADHD who was diagnosed late in life? How has that opened your eyes to how we can support people getting the right care at the right time? 

GS: It’s funny you mentioned Ellie, because I saw a post that she’d put up recently that was saying one of the reasons it’s so affirming to get a neurodivergent diagnosis is because — especially if you’ve gotten to the point where you are someone who’s being diagnosed later in life — you have spent so many years just feeling quietly like there’s something wrong with you and looking at everyone existing and working and maintaining relationships and doing all of these things — and finding it really difficult, and not understanding why. 

And that’s been interesting for me because I’ve been dealing with mental health issues, and thinking: ‘maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that.’ But I always did sort of feel that way. 

It’s both funny and kind of frustrating now that I think back to conversations that I’ve had with a general practitioner and with the therapist that I used to see — I think I was on medication at the time — saying ‘I feel better, but I don’t feel like I think I’m supposed to feel like.’

KB: Yes, like, it still doesn’t seem right. I’m still not there.

GS: Yes, like, I’m not as sad as I was, but I thought that all of this other stuff would get easier, and it hasn’t, and I didn’t understand why. So even just in that respect, I think there is something massively affirming about just having a diagnosis and kind of being able to understand yourself a little bit better. 

I feel like I don’t want to kind of talk about this with any degree of authority because it’s still been less than a year since I was diagnosed. 

But even just in the way that I speak to myself — and it’s still really frustrating, don’t get me wrong — but it’s a lot easier to beat myself up a little bit less. 

It’s not that I’m a useless, terrible, lazy human being. Actually, there is a reason why I find these things difficult. And even though that’s annoying, at least I know what it is now. 

Gemma Styles
Photo courtesy of Georgia Furness

KB: Having the words to describe it is so empowering. That being said, part of my ADHD experience was seeing content online that explained all these symptoms that prompted me to ask more questions.

And I think people are quick to maybe call it a trend right now when it’s often that we just have more information. With that in mind, how can we be more thoughtful about talking about mental health online?

GS: I think if we’re going into conversations and talking about anything mental health-related as a trend in quite that derogatory tone, I don’t think that’s helpful. 

If you’re someone who thinks about mental health in that context, even when you’re not affected by any of those things, just think twice about it and realize that maybe you’re not the person who knows the most about that thing — which is something that, in general, we’re not very good at doing in the world at the moment.

But I mean, people can talk about ADHD being a trend, but I was diagnosed at the age of 31 and the symptoms and everything are things that I’ve been dealing with for like the past 20 years. It was there. And I’m sure that’s the case for a lot of other people, too. 

People will talk about things like anxiety as a trend, too. And equally, I think if you look at it statistically, there is an upward trend in the data of how many people are affected by mental health conditions.

We don’t need to dismiss out of hand why we see mental health conditions becoming more prevalent, but you do have to maintain quite a level of nuance when you have these conversations. 

KB: I mean, yeah, we have to understand culturally why people are experiencing these things.

GS: Yeah, exactly. There’s a massive cost-of-living crisis. These things cause anxiety. 

Gemma Styles
Photo courtesy of Georgia Furness

KB: It doesn’t take away from the severity of mental health issues, but it does make them understandable, to come to these conversations with nuance.

With that in mind,  you seem to have a pretty lovely audience online. But even with all those people, how do you make your platform feel more like a community than a one-way channel? And what does that journey look like?

GS: I hope that is what people feel that it is. I think I’ve tried to do that in different ways, over the past few years, I feel like I do ask for people’s opinions quite a lot. 

When you look at podcasting, for example, I’ve always found it really important to have quite a lot of audience participation involved in that way. In all the episodes, there are questions from the audience, as well as questions from me, because as much as it’s my podcast and I get to ask the questions, I’m aware that I am just one person, so I am only going to have my perspective on things. 

I think in terms of it being a community feeling as well, I don’t tend to treat Instagram like a website. I try not to, even though it is a professional platform for me, I try not to overly curate it to the point that it is too polished a version of me, even though everyone does that to a certain extent. 

It’s always one of my favorite things if I meet someone for the first time and we kind of talk a bit, and then they say, ‘oh, you’re exactly how I thought you would be, following you online.’ And that’s always my favorite thing to hear. Because I’m like, well, that’s good, that means that I am giving off an accurate representation of myself.

I really like it when people think that I give off an accurate representation of myself because it makes me feel like I’m doing my job well by not pretending to be someone else.

Everyone’s relationship with social media is different. I don’t take it for granted that people follow me and engage with things that I say and things that I post and all the rest of it. 

I will just never, ever be in the headspace where I’m like, ‘well, I’m great and I’ve got loads of great stuff to say. So of course they should be following me. Of course they should.’ That’s just not how I feel about anything ever. 

I’m always like, ‘thank you so much, glad to have you. What do you want to tell me?’ 

I think people — especially if they’ve followed me for a while — know that if I’m talking to them, if I’m in the comments section, if I’m posting stuff, it’s because I want to be there. Because sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I will dip out because my mental health isn’t great or I’m just busy doing other stuff or, like, I’m being a human being. 

Gemma Styles
Photo courtesy of Georgia Furness

KB: Why is community important to mental health? I know you have a “Do Good” page on your website with ways people can maybe take a bad day and make someone else’s day better. How do you see that in action, and how do you think it impacts mental health? 

GS: Yeah, that page of the website is an example of just small, good actions that you can do and put out into the world. It is something that I believe can have a real sort of positive effect for people. There are a lot of studies that show helping other people with acts of kindness is actually really good for your own mental health, as well. 

You know, even if you’re doing it for a selfish reason, it’s good all around. You’ll feel better, and hopefully you’ve done something good for the world.

In general, community in mental health is so important, not least for the reason that it’s really lonely sometimes. I think something a lot of different people with different mental health conditions have in common is that it can just be really rubbish, and tiring, and boring, and lonely trying to deal with mental illness.

As much as there’s something to be said for tips and things, like ‘try this and try that, and like, oh, make a nice cup of tea and hang eucalyptus in your shower and do all of these, like, cute, Instagramm-y things,’ there’s a space for that, but equally, a lot of it, it’s just not cute at all. 

Sometimes you just feel so much better for hearing somebody mirror your experience and knowing that you’re not alone in it, even when you are alone in it in that present moment. 

And maybe there isn’t anyone around that you can talk to. Or maybe you’re just in a place where you are isolating yourself either intentionally or because you’re just trying to survive and live and get through whatever patch you’re dealing with. But I think relatability and community are enormously valuable.

KB: Yeah, when I think about it personally, I feel like it reduces shame. It makes me realize even if I’m not super connected to someone, like seeing them say something like, oh, ‘I have executive dysfunction issues. I haven’t washed my dishes in three days,’ I’m like, ‘yeah, oh my gosh, I’m not a failure.’ It turns a lonely experience into a human experience, and I think that’s what’s so validating about it.

GS: Oh yeah, I really agree with that. 

Sometimes when I’m just really, like, staring around and despairing at my own life and like, ‘why am I just staring at this pile of mess and not cleaning it up and feeling so much better about myself?’ And then you see someone else is also doing it and you’re like, well, ‘sucks for us both.’

KB: Looks like I’m not the only one! We talked about this a bit earlier, but mental health is very much at the intersection of a lot of activism and social justice work. In this decade of mental health work you’ve been doing, how have you found that to be true and what does that look like?

Gemma Styles
Photo courtesy of Georgia Furness

GS: I think the reason why mental health seems to come into everything is that we — rightly more so in recent years — have been a little bit more person-focused when we look at activism. 

I’m well aware that there are activists who have come decades and decades before, but I think the new niche of social media activists who grow a platform by talking about all these issues we have will talk more about burnout and climate anxiety and, you know, getting really bogged down and overwhelmed by the work that they do. 

It’s showing up and doing this incredible and really important work, but also then having the bravery to open up and say, ‘this is really hard.’ 

I know people are looking up to me thinking like, ‘oh, well, they know what they’re doing and they’ve got all the answers.’ But actually, this is really hard for me, as well.

And I’m just one person in this space. The reason why you see mental health at the intersection of everything is that all of the people who are doing this work are also dealing with their own mental health.

Not that everyone who is involved in activism has mental health conditions, but every person on the planet has their own mental health landscape that they have to take care of. 

I can’t end up doing an episode of the podcast without talking to someone about mental health as part of it, no matter what the topic is. Whoever you’re talking to about a particular topic is also a person who’s trying to deal with that topic.

I think the best thing about bringing the mental health conversation into those other conversations is that you realize that you’re talking to a person about something, and they’re not a mouthpiece, or a spokesperson, or an icon of a particular thing.

Even if they do hold all those positions, it’s still just a person dealing with things. And I think that helps us connect to each other a bit more, and hopefully makes these areas of activism and work feel a bit more accessible to people. 

I think as much as we can put people on pedestals and look at the incredible work that people are doing, it does make them feel a bit unreal and a bit sort of ethereal. 

Talking about mental health as part of these conversations makes you realize that they are just people and you’re also a person, which means you can also get involved and you can also be of use in all of these arenas.

KB: I love that. That resonates with me a lot too, because that’s kind of the foundation of Good Good Good, that there are these massive challenges in the world, but when we focus on creative solutions and action steps, we’re not expecting things to be perfect, but moving in a direction of hope. Aside from your podcast, what are some other projects you’re working on that give you that energy? 

GS: You know, I’m just vibing. I’m doing my best.

But really, aside from the podcast, I’m working with Kenmark on my sunglasses line, and those are out in the world. I just released a pack of happy, cheerful designs on the Template app you can use on various social media things, and I am working on a big project I can’t tell anyone about yet.

I’m also continuing to work with MQ Mental Health Research, which is a charity I’m an ambassador with. What I like to do as part of that is use my platform to inform people of the mental health research landscape and make people aware of how they can get involved with more things.

Whether that is through fundraising, or even working with studies by just filling out an online questionnaire. There is research going on all the time, and I love to be able to disseminate that information a bit better and help people get involved with that research. 

I mean, even you and I have been talking about ADHD and we’re both women who weren’t diagnosed as children, and that was possibly a reality for us because, as women, the data doesn’t reflect us as much. 

The further you cross into different intersections, the further people away are from the data set. So, for lots of different conditions and lots of different people, the more data we can have is only going to be a good thing because it will hopefully stop us from slipping through the net in the future. 

Gemma Styles
Photo courtesy of Georgia Furness

KB: This is always my final question no matter who I’m talking to: What is giving you hope these days?

GS: People. 

I just meet a lot of really nice people, in real life or in the online communities we’ve been talking about. There are just so many lovely people who really care, and that genuine kindness and caring does make me feel really inspired in the face of a lot of the opposite going on in the world. 

There’s that old saying, like ‘look for the helpers,’ and that genuinely does make me feel quite hopeful.

A version of this article was originally published in The 2023 Mental Health Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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Article Details

January 23, 2023 6:29 PM
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