Rebekah Ballagh: The Kiwi Counsellor Creating An Illustrated Guide To Mental Health

As the creator of the hugely popular Instagram page, Journey To Wellness, qualified counsellor Rebekah Ballagh is all too aware of how hard this year has been for so many people. So she’s created a book, Note To Self, to help people learn to understand and work with their mental health better. We chat to Rebekah about the inspiration behind her illustration work and the tools she uses to help look after herself.

When Rebekah Ballagh first signed up to do a counselling and social work certificate at 19, she knew it was a life calling but she was also aware she didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of life experience to go into a job that can really require it. So she did some other work and then, a few years later, did a counselling degree in Wellington. But it was after working in schools, back in her hometown of Nelson, that she wanted to come up with an easier and more accessible way to breakdown complex mental health tools for the students she was working with.

In early 2018, Rebekah started an Instagram page called Journey To Wellness, where she drew small little illustrations to help explain different types of mental health tools. “Some of these therapeutic concepts are quite abstract and I wanted to illustrate those, as well as breathing tools, etc, so that clients could log on, in between sessions, and see them,” Rebekah says.

“I wanted to have counselling tools accessible to anyone. Yes, you can get free counselling but also sometimes it’s not just the price which is a barrier. Sometimes it’s too scary to go to counselling. I wanted to provide some of the information for free and have it illustrated, so that it was really digestible. If you can glance at an image and it can give you what you need, then that’s ideal.”

Her Instagram following slowly grew and grew. “Towards the end of 2018, I was sitting in a rugby stadium – I’m not sure why, I never go to the rugby! – but there were 20-30,000 people there and that was how many followers I had at the time. I was like ‘Wow, okay. That’s a LOT of people.’ And then it continued to snow ball.”

Now, over 360k people follow Journey to Wellness – that’s a heck of a lot of rugby stadiums. It’s no surprise that a global pandemic and recession has brought up a lot of mental health issues for people – even for those who may have little to no experience with mental distress until this year. “So many people are experiencing mental health for the first time – they’re having things happen to them or around them or to people they know, that are so out of their control… and that’s where a lot of anxiety comes from, when things are outside of your control,” Rebekah says. “No one could plan for anything that’s happened this year; there have been a lot of tests of people’s mental health.”

Even before Covid-19, Rebekah was well aware from her work with teenagers that anxiety was on a rise. “Anxiety takes the majority slice of the pie,” she says. But this year has spiked it for many. “A lot of people have contacted me and said ‘I’ve never experienced anything with my mental health before and this year has happened and, out of nowhere, I’ve just been hit with this freight train of panic attacks or anxiety.”

As well as creating e-books and mini guides, Rebekah has put together her first book Note To Self: The Secrets of Calm. Filled with colourful illustrations that break down complex information in a really simple and accessible way, Note To Self starts with basic concepts and then gets more detailed. This was designed, Rebekah says, to mirror the flow of therapy. “When you work with something like trauma, in a therapy context, you wouldn’t ever go straight to the traumas. You would start with ‘let’s get really safe, let’s build a relationship, let’s work on grounding and breathing and you being able to centre yourself and then, once you’re able to do all of those things, you can go deeper. I wanted it to be that whatever page you opened, you would find something that would help you.”

It’s really important that for people who are living with diagnosis of anxiety or depression, that they understand that it won’t define the rest of their life, Rebekah says. “There are lot of times when a label or diagnosis can be really helpful, when a person feels relief: ‘that’s what this is, I know how to manage this now, it’s given me some framework, here are my options.’ But when you grab onto a label and see it as your new identity, see it as a flaw and a weakness, that’s not helpful. A diagnosis is not a prediction for your future… it doesn’t have to be in the driver’s seat, it doesn’t have to make the decisions in your life.”

A cartoon from Rebekah Ballagh

In order to keep in touch with your own mental health, Rebekah suggests doing little check-ins with yourself throughout the day. “We’re so busy rushing around that we don’t stop very often and see how we are. So taking little moments to stop, check in and ground yourself is key, because they you can inform yourself how to then act, going forward, in a way that’s best for your mental health.”

When Rebekah first heard of the terms ‘grounding’ and ‘mindfulness,’ she admits she was a bit eyeroll-y about them. “I thought they were an airy concept,” she says. But then she decided to challenge that assumption and do a course in mindfulness. “it changes everything… it’s so easy to steam roll through your life; you might have an awareness, somewhere, that something is off, but until you stop, pause and check-in, you don’t really know what is going on. Sometimes I’ll stop and go ‘I’m not breathing properly, or my jaw is super tight, or I’m having this type of thought on repeat.’ If you leave it unchecked, after a few weeks you can tip over the edge and then you’re in a really yucky place. Whereas if you do those check-ins and mindfulness early, you have that ability to make an informed decision.”

A cartoon from Rebekah Ballagh

Running a business on social media is a double-edged sword – amazing for creating a community, but the platforms can also come with some mental health effects as well. Rebekah suggests an ‘insta-cleanse’ – which is a really good tool, particularly as we move towards the summer holidays and the new year. “You go through who you’re following on your insta feed and any image or account that comes up, which makes you feel that sense of comparison or less than, or makes you question yourself in anyway, you just stop following that account. That way, you can become more intentional about what you’re seeing.”

A cartoon from Rebekah Ballagh

Note To Self is out now, and is a super delightful, super helpful book about how to learn more about your overall mental health, as well as tools to learn when you feel anxious or distressed. For more information on Journey To Wellness and Rebekah’s mahi, click here.

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