Mental health self-help guides tend to be dull, so I created a vibrant zine

‘I noticed there were few resources for service users that were empowering or pleasing to the eye.’ Photograph: Swirlzine

I’ve used my experiences over the last 20 years to develop Swirl, an accessible guide to managing anxiety

I have struggled with anxiety, particularly overthinking, for a number of years. I’ve had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and taken medication – and I’ve collected a lot of self-help literature.

I’ve found most of this material dull and lengthy, and if you have mental health issues, you might struggle with the motivation and concentration to read it. As a mental health nurse, I also noticed there were few resources for service users that were empowering or pleasing to the eye. There was a lot of stereotyping, with pictures of clouds, people frowning or sitting with their head in their hands. I wanted to create something that could take on those associations.

Last year, a number of zines around mental health were published, such as Doll Hospital Journal and Anxy. They were all aesthetically pleasing and empowering, doing their bit to strip down stigma – but many of them focused on very personal stories. I wanted to produce something similar that was more of a guide, to condense all the information from lengthy self-help books into something concise.

The result is Swirl – a vibrant, 20-page booklet that provides straightforward wisdom around overcoming overthinking. It is digestible and accessible.

 ‘I wanted to create something that people would be proud to have on their coffee table.’ Photograph: Swirlzine

I worked for nine months to get the wording as succinct as possible. It was a hard task. I wanted to make it conversational and move away from jargon. The words “mental health” don’t appear until the last page.

The content is psychological, evidence-based advice led by CBT techniques. It depicts the worry tree and the stress vulnerability bucket to help readers manage and rationalise their thoughts, and be in the here and now. I sent it to colleagues and peers past and present for their input; mental health advocates in the UK and the US; clinical psychologists in the NHS; and occupational therapists at Combat Stress, a charity that helps military veterans with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, where I work in the outreach team. I asked people who have struggled with anxiety if they thought it would work for them: is there anything you disagree with, anything you’d add or take away?

I also wanted to make the guide stand out. With a lot of mental health literature, I feel like you want to hide it away if someone visits. You don’t feel drawn to it or motivated to pick it up. I wanted to create something as striking as possible that people would be proud to have on their coffee table. Everyone can struggle with mental health; it’s not just one thing, it involves a spectrum of emotions. That’s what I’ve tried to get across with the mix of colours.

I’ve been lucky to work with some talented people. I worked with Gina Yu, a writer and marketer based in Atlanta, who helped with the stylistic elements. The illustrations were created by Nate Kitch and I had numerous conversations with the printers – Ex Why Zed – to make sure the paper was just so; I wanted the paper quality of Swirl to be conducive to helping people relax.