Could you tell us a bit about your professional background and how this has led you to work on this series and stories?
There has always been a creative seed deep within me, and in recent years my professional and creative worlds have become excitingly intertwined. Professionally, I specialized in both general medicine and public health, but the latter has been my mainstay for the last two decades. I have worked as local director of public health in Camden, in national roles as director of public health strategy and director of global public health at HPA/PHE, and currently work at NHS headquarters as clinical director of national clinical policy. I am also a senior public health adviser to the Football Association (FA), advise the UK film and television industry on covid and have worked academically at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for many years.
As much as I have tried to be imaginative in my professional work, the creative seed has been slowly germinating. Initially, this was reflected in studying philosophy after getting my medical degree, but over the last decade the impetus has been increasingly expressed in literary form, further inspired by my serving on the board of directors of the wonderful national charity BookTrust. In 2013 I published my first children’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Perch the Catand my current book, the five trackswas published by Crown House last year (https://www.crownhouse.co.uk/publications/the-five-clues).
the five tracks is a teen detective/adventure book centered around 13-year-old Edie Marble who discovers that her mother’s death a year earlier may not have been an accident. There is a public health plot (conceived long before the Covid pandemic!) and a major sub-plot on supporting mental health in children and young adults. The book, which is the first in the 4-book ‘Don’t Doubt the Rainbow’ series, has so far been shortlisted for the Dudley Children’s Book Award 2021, People’s Book Prize 2022, Hampshire Book Awards 2022 and CrimeFest Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel for Children 2022.
How do you think the mental health of children and young people has been affected by the pandemic? And what are your hopes for how your books might offer support to this group?
The current mental health challenges for children and young adults are immense. This was the case before 2019, but since the pandemic the situation has intensified with significant increases in demand for services for depression, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, OCD, addictions and the like. In April 2021, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) said that “the country is in the throes of a mental health crisis and children are the worst affected”. On March 21, 2022, the British medical journal reported that RCPsych has now urged the government to fund a recovery plan for mental health care specialists due to “unprecedented demand.”
In this context, I have had a long-standing personal and professional interest in children’s mental health. In recent years, I have been particularly interested in a novel approach to psychological well-being based on an understanding of how the mind works, and therefore an understanding of how we experience life, moment by moment and day by day. The awareness of how we generate our life experience allows the reduction of psychological anguish (for example, stress, fear, pressure, discouragement) and the discovery of our inner well-being. Therefore, the approach is not just about managing life’s challenges, but also about facilitating people’s ability to thrive and thrive. I have published articles in Journal of Public Mental Health about this approach, as well as a summary on my own Medium site (https://akessel.medium.com/the-tres-principles-understanding-of-how-the-mind-works-an-overview-55c03a255296), and I sit on the board of a mental health charity that delivers innovative programs (informed by this approach) to schools in this country and internationally.
In the five tracks the young protagonist, Edie Marble, learns about this understanding from her mother, which helps Edie solve clues, bring criminals to justice, and overcome grief and other emotional challenges. This sub-theme of supporting children’s psychological well-being and resilience runs throughout the ‘Don’t Doubt the Rainbow’ series. In terms of improving public health, my intention is to generate a benefit in the mental health of young people using the vehicle of fiction.
How do you think storytelling could be used more broadly in public health to reach certain audiences, particularly children and young people?
Storytelling is an incredibly powerful way to share ideas, deliver messages, and effect change. Much of what we already do professionally in public health involves telling a story. A well-written board document tells the story of a new strategy to address obesity at the local level or the story of a proposed organizational redesign. To be successful, these articles need a compelling narrative arc, in the same way that a powerful academic article tells a good story of why the research is needed, how the authors set out to do the study, what the results were, and what was found. must do. as a result. An annual public health report is, basically, a chronicle of the health of the population.
If compelling, a good story’s narrative is more likely to grab the audience’s attention and therefore be more effective. This is as true for a spoken story as it is for a written one. Telling a story well is therefore a powerful and somewhat underutilized tool in the public health toolkit. We need to harness this skill in public health, perhaps by first supporting the development of art.
Young people love a good story, perhaps even more than adults, and I hope that my children’s books can be a touchstone for further use of storytelling in public health practice.
Finally, can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from future books in the series?
Set three months apart, each book in the ‘Don’t Doubt the Rainbow’ series has a new adventure story, with the theme of psychological well-being as its continuation. the second book, long shot, will be published in July 2022 and involves ecoterrorism, climate change, stolen dogs, and test fraud, as well as a general discussion of determinism and free will. Plus, of course, Edie contains her journey of self-discovery.
I now spend a lot of time in schools, talking to children and reading books, and at events focused on the relationship between fiction/reading and children’s mental health. It’s wonderfully pleasurable and rewarding, but nothing gives me more pleasure than a single child telling me how much they enjoyed my book and what they learned from it. A story is an extraordinary vehicle for joy, entertainment, and learning, as well as a potentially vital means of improving well-being.