Like many Aussie dads, ask Rick Foster what he’s passionate about and he’ll tell you: his family, his sport and his community. He’ll also bring up mental health issues and why we shouldn’t shrug them off.
A professional writer for 25 years, Rick self-published his first picture book, Why Worry Wally?, after his own experience with anxiety. He wanted to help kids cope with their worries and bring to light the struggles that so many of us face.
We chat to Rick about his charming book, his mental health struggles and how we can look after ourselves and our families’ to reach our best possible mental health.
We love that you’ve recently achieved a lifelong goal and published Why Worry Wally?, a children’s book about dealing with worries. Congratulations! Can you tell us about how you came to write about this topic?
Thanks. It’s definitely been a journey for myself and Wally!
I’ve always loved writing, and was fortunate to build up a creative agency over 20 years which my wife and I sold to our business partner at the end of 2017. At times over my career as a copywriter I had struggled with periods of anxiety, but like many people (particularly men), I’d try to struggle on through and shrug it off. When I couldn’t get out of bed two days in a row, I knew I had to seek help. That was in 2012.
Over the next two years I continued to battle through my anxiety with the help of my counsellor, but was on a constant roller coaster. Finally I reached a breaking point, where I decided to take time out from work for a few months and focus on my health and recovery. It was during this time I decided to do a picture book writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre.
This ignited a passion which had laid dormant since I first started reading picture books to my two girls. I had a dream that one day I could write a book for them, but ironically never had the headspace until I took the time off to deal with my own anxiety.
The topic of worries was a natural one for me to explore. Not just because of my experience. Unfortunately, both my daughters experienced separate periods of severe anxiety going through primary school, and I also knew of many of their friends who were facing similar challenges.
I wanted to write a book that could help kids trying to cope with their worries and help them open up conversations with their parents, carers, teachers and friends in a fun and engaging way.
What have you learnt from your experience with anxiety, and what techniques work for you in keeping severe anxiety at bay?
The most important thing I learnt is that I wasn’t alone.
When you’re in the depths of anxiety, you feel like you have no choices. Nowhere to turn. When I finally put my hand up for help, the world didn’t stop. I wasn’t judged. And I suddenly had plenty of choices.
Going to my GP, seeing a counsellor, and talking to my family and friends changed everything.
I’ve also learnt that anxiety isn’t something that will just go away. It’s part of me and I’m on a constant learning curve with Dennis (my counsellor) in understanding my anxiety better and keeping it under control. It took me a long time to look at my anxiety that way.
When my anxiety would spike and I’d have trouble with sleep, priorities, and catastrophising about everything, I’d get angry at my anxiety. Thought it was the enemy, and this would only make it worse. That’s not a good place to be in.
Changing this mindset has been a key part of my journey. That my anxiety is not separate to me. It’s there to protect me; not harm. The voice in my head and knot in my stomach are there to let me know that I’m not comfortable in this situation, and I need to look after myself.
By being more aware of how I’m feeling, it’s become easier for me to recognise what is a normal level of anxiety and what is excessive, and then take steps to control it.
Exercise is a big one. It can be the hardest thing to get yourself moving when you’re suffering severe anxiety, but it’s so worth it. It’s given my mental and physical health a huge boost.
Breathing is another. Slow, deep, measured breathing. When the chatter in my head starts to take over, or the heart rate begins to increase, taking a few moments to concentrate on my breathing and slow everything down is a great help and comfort. Apps like Smiling Mind, which concentrate on mindfulness breathing and meditation, have been a great tool for our whole family to use to slow things down and take time out for ourselves, especially before bed.
More and more parents are seeing anxious behaviours in their children. In what ways can parents support their kids? And what are your tips for encouraging kids to apply these techniques when they might be hesitant.
First of all, if you have any major concerns about the mental health of your kids, please seek the help of a professional. Your GP is a great place to start.
I think the best way for parents and carers to support their kids is to be present. To slow down and simply listen – really listen. I know this isn’t always easy in our busy lives, and I certainly wasn’t ‘there’ a lot of times. I can remember plenty of times that I would read a picture book to my girls, but I’d walk out of the room and not remember what I read or said.
Being in the moment is so important.
You also don’t have to be a superhero for your kids. Yes, you want them to feel safe and secure, but it’s okay for you to show your vulnerability and that you have worries too. Normalising worries and anxiety helps kids feel that they aren’t alone or different. That they can talk about their feelings freely, and sometimes when those worries get bigger, it’s good to ask for help from a family member, friend or someone like a doctor who we can trust.
Keeping techniques as simple as we can, and in a way they can understand, makes it easier for kids to practice them.
The story of Wally is a timely one, given the uncertainty the world is facing right now. Why is it so important to talk openly about worry and anxiety?
I know firsthand what it’s like if you don’t speak up about your worries or anxiety when it’s starting to impact your life. You feel trapped and very alone. I didn’t want my girls to feel like that, which is why we sought help, and I don’t want other kids to feel like they can’t talk about the challenges they’re going through. Thankfully today there’s a lot more awareness about mental health, and the stigma surrounding it is lessening. But it’s still a major issue – an ABS report in 2018 alarmingly revealed suicide is the leading cause of death of children in Australia between 5 and 17 years^. The events of this year only makes it more important for kids to feel safe and supported to speak up.
My hope for Wally is that he helps begin these conversations and create a greater understanding about the issue of mental health. It’s why I approached Kids Helpline so that I could support their work through sales from the book and spread the word about this amazing organisation. It’s also why I sought the expert help of mental health professionals in shaping the story to ensure the messaging and themes were appropriate for primary school children.
So if you see your kids struggling, talk to them and let them talk to you. This may be all they need. But if you feel it’s more than that, it’s okay not to have all the answers and to seek some specialist help. In fact it’s the best thing you can do, for your kids and yourself.
I’m inspired by… people who never give up.
My favourite time of the day is… when the sun is out in summer.
When I need a good laugh… I’ll watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine or an old clip from The Late Show by The D-Generation crew.
I’m grateful for… meeting my wife, who I have shared life and work with over 25 years.
^ABS, Cause of Death, Australia, 2018