Kema Sikawe recently appeared in a BBC 3 documentary: Therapy: Tough Talking in which he gives viewers a front-row seat at a series of therapy sessions where he opens up and discusses his mental health challenges.
Kema, who is also known as Kema Kay, is a musician, actor and broadcaster based in Newcastle. In this episode we talk with Kema about the pros and cons of talking publicly about your mental health, and what safeguards need to be in place to make it a positive experience.
Therapy: Tough Talking can be found on BBC iPlayer here.
You can find out more about Will and Kema’s work with Radio Film and the BBC World Service here.
Find out more about our show at https://www.anyamedia.net/livelyminds
Find out more about our show at https://www.anyamedia.net/livelyminds
E: I just wanted to let you know that today’s episode contains references to self-harm and
depression. You can find signposting to support at our website www.anyamedia.net/LivelyMinds.
W: Hello my name is Will.
E: And my name is Ellie.
W: You are listening to Lively Minds, the podcast about mental health challenges that go beyond the ebb and flow of the everyday.
E: A podcast that is less about how we deal with our mental health and more about how we understand it in the first place.
W: In today’s episode we are chatting to Kema Sikazwe aka Kema Kay who is a musician, actor and broadcaster based in Newcastle. He is joining us after completing a whirlwind tour of the acclaimed theatrical adaptation of Ken Loach’s film I Daniel Blake.
E: Kema has also recently appeared in a BBC 3 documentary Therapy Tough Talking in which he gives viewers a front row seat at a series of therapy sessions where he opens up and discusses his mental health.
W: Today we are going to be talking with Kema about the pros and cons, benefits and challenges of talking publicly about your mental health.
Kema, welcome to the show.
K: Wow, what a great introduction. Thank you for having me.
W: It is great to have you here and we should start off by just saying that you and I are pals, we’ve known each other for a little while now. We’ve worked together.
W: We’ve worked together on a few BBC World Service documentaries, which I’ll put links to actually in the, in the description, in the show notes, to this episode as well and on the website. And it’s just great to have you here. Could you begin, Kema, just by introducing yourself and telling us about, sort of, when you realised that your mental health challenges were going beyond the everyday human experience?
K: So yeah, so my name is Kema Sikazwe, also known as Kema K.
And I think the first time I was really sort of aware about my mental health kind of declining. Weirdly, its as I’ve got older, I feel like when I was younger, what I used to do was just kind of find other ways to cope with what I was going through and just kind of shove it under the rug but I feel as you get older and you become more self aware, you start to realise, okay, there’s something going on here. And it’s something I just couldn’t shake off al my previous coping mechanisms weren’t working anymore, and everything I’ve kind of shoved under the rug for years was sort of like coming to the surface. And then I was like, I need to do something about this.
W: Let me take you then to you and me and a mutual friend of ours, Andy Jones. We were out for a pint and you told us that you were thinking about doing a TV programme about your mental health. And just, just so we know where we’re at in terms of your previous answer, so where were you at, at that point in, in terms of coming to terms yourself with your mental health?
K: Well, so me and the producer, Andrew Eastel, we had a conversation just about mental health in general. it wasn’t supposed to actually be TV documentary. We were just talking about mental health. And then we spoke about, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do something where we could sort
of get that professional health and also help other people?” Because we’re also talking about the NHS and being on the waiting list
K: And how sometimes when people are going through really difficult times and you’re on this long waiting list, it’s like, “Okay, we need the help now, but you know how expensive it can be if you’re not doing it privately.” So we spoke about, “Okay, is there anything…?” it would be great to have something out there which is really authentically spoke about but then in the end it was like okay that sounds great but who’s gonna do it? And at the time I was going through all these struggles and I was like am I the right person to do it? And then I was like wait, why do I want to do this? And there was obviously an opportunity to, to get my therapy funded for by the BBC and the production by a middle child but also get the help I need and I had to speak to a lot of people and that’s where we ended up at the table having a pint and I was like hey guys what, what do you think about this?
E: I’ve heard that Will’s reaction was like maybe not super positive is that right?
K: Yes I remember that very clearly and I think the first because I’d said it and then I just saw Will’s face and he’s like, “Yeah, um, yeah.” “Did you think that’s a good idea?” And I was like, “I don’t know guys, that’s why I’m asking.” Because I think for me it was very much the unknown because it was like I’d never actually dealt with my mental health professionally.
E: Had you not had therapy before that?
K: No, so I’d not had therapy before, but I had sort of an idea of what it sort of entailed. And for me, I was like, okay, I’m on this waiting list. And funny enough, when I was actually filming, and it mounted up to one year an two months, then the NHS had called me and said, oh, you know, we’ve had you on the waiting list, er, we’re ready for a couple of sessions. I was just like, I was going through such a dark time at that point, you know, I needed the help then.
K: So, so part of me, I think doing it also was, okay, if I can get this help, kind of, you know sooner and if it can be done in a way where it does protect me. Because also I knew that, okay, I’m going to be talking about really vulnerable things on TV in the front of the whole UK. Why would anyone want to do that?
But then I was constantly reassured about it’s not about the details of my story, but rather around getting rid of the stigma around therapy
K: and mental health and actually talking. And then when I saw Andrew’s sort of intentions around it, then I was like, okay, maybe there is something positive we can do from it. But obviously I needed to speak to the people I know and trust on what their view was on it as well.
W: So at the time, I think the reason for my reticence was because it felt to me as though
putting aside the documentary possibility, you coming to terms with your own mental health, just
in yourself had happened relatively recently in terms of realising that there was a problem
and a problem that needed sorting. And I guess that my reticence was around whether it was
a good idea to both be coming to terms with it yourself and also sharing it so publicly on, on telly.
But before we move on to the sort of sharing it publicly on telly, can you just tell us that, you know, at that time, before the before Middlechild came to you to talk about this documentary idea, where were you at in terms of your own journey, on your own understanding of your own mental health? Where had you got to by that point in terms of how you were understanding your own mental health?
K: Okay, to put it into perspective, where I was, I think there’s one situation I’m going to share it’s quite a personal story and this is where I realised ‘okay I really do need this help’ and I’d went out on a night out with a few friends and you know like at the end of the night everyone’s getting their taxis to leave and we’re all waiting together and then for some reason I was just feeling really anxious and really overwhelmed and I just didn’t feel good, and I said to everyone I was like look I’m just gonna walk home and and then everyone looked at me and they were like,
“What?” Like, ’cause it would take roughly around an hour or a half to walk home, and they were like, “What are you doing?” “No, get the taxi we’re all, gettin’ the taxi.” I was like, “No, I’m going to walk home.” And then everyone was pretty freaked out because it’s just something I wouldn’t usually do. It was quite out of character, something I wouldn’t usually do on a normal day-to-day basis. So then when I was walking home, I just, it almost felt like I was having a panic attack, and I just felt like I was just breathing really heavily, and the next thing I thought to do was just run. I was like I just need to get rid of this feeling so I just started running and I ran all the way home but when I was running I was so tired but I was focusing on the pain in my legs and how out of breath I was and I was like okay if I can feel this pain then it can sort of get rid of the pain of what I’m feeling sort of mentally, and then I got home and I was exhausted my legs were in agony I could barely walk the next day but it was kind of like the first time I realised, did, did I just self-harm there? And then I was like okay I think I do need help.
E: I know someone else who has told me about doing exactly that with a panic attack and with the running as well and you’re right that it is the kind of one of the sort of main principles of why people self-harm because the being able to focus on, it’s a grounding technique it is a coping mechanism, it’s it’s not an ideal one obviously, but yeah even in that state you’re part of you clearly knew that you needed to get rid of that feeling somehow and that was the only way maybe like that you could think of doing it.
K: Yeah and I think as well I don’t know why I chose running. I was just like what, what do I do? And then I just started running and I was like, okay, focus on this. And then when I was tired, then yeah, the focus shifted to the pain of my legs and then being tired. And I was like, okay, I can focus on that instead because that’s way better than focusing on what I was feeling before, and to be honest, I’ve never done sort of anything like that before, and I didn’t really understand it. So I was like, yeah, I need to kind of be careful with, you know where I’m kind of at mentally. And I think, as I was saying, as you get older, you do come more self-aware, so you start analysing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what’s sort of going on, whereas in, I think, when you’re younger and you find all these other different coping mechanisms, you don’t really analyse it as much.
W: So it would be fair to say then, wouldn’t it, that things were, the point at which the production company came to you, things were pretty raw, right? I mean, it, I mean, you know, when do mental health challenges, when are they not raw? I guess one could retort to that. So in the end, you’ve already alluded to some of the stuff around positive messaging around mental health and wanted to be part of that. You’ve mentioned around actually getting some therapeutic support through the program itself. What was the, in the end, what was the thing that made you decide, right, I’m going to go for this, with regards to the TV program, I mean.
K: I think like, throughout my entire career and everything I do, I’ve always used like say music as a way of therapy for myself. I’ve always loved to talk about, you know, difficult things I’ve went through and how I’ve tried to get out of it. And I’ve always felt like I love to like, I get my biggest satisfaction for feeling like I’m helping someone or doing something positive. So I thought, okay, let me try and see if I can do something to put out there in the world which will be positive and help other people because on top of my mental health, I also have a lot of friends who were going through different situations but kind of similar things mentally. And when I started going to therapy as well, I sort of had an idea around it, but, and I was speaking to my friends around it and they were like, well, what’s it about? What do do they do? Is it like just this room where you just tell someone about your problems? How can they solve that? And I thought there is a huge stigma around it and I want to be able to get rid of that on top of getting the help. So it was, like, I did, I had two goals, like get help, it’s going to be quicker for me to get the help and I can help people along the way. I didn’t see the wrong in doing that. I think the only thing what I was afraid of is because I didn’t know the scale of what was going on in my mind. And this project could have went like, horribly wrong. And then I could have been left worse off than I was before going into it. And that was, that’s why I was asking, you know, people I, you know, trust about their opinion. And, and I was getting so many people’s opinions I really do care about. And like what I don’t know what to do, because I can see how important this can be not just for me but for other people, but am I the right person to do this because I am suffering from really you know dark thoughts in, in mental health so am I the right person I don’t know.
E: And what was it about the whole experience that do you think meant that it wasn’t a disaster?
I think for me it was the way Andrew Eastel from Middlechild, the ways and the lengths he went to to protect me. And he was thinking of things that I didn’t even think of. There was one
W: Did you be clear then this is the producer? Of the, of the programme?
K: Yes. This is the yes, the producer of the programme, Andrew Eastel from Middlechild. And I remember one night he rang me at like, I think it was 11 o’clock at night. And I mean, in this industry that just doesn’t happen, you know? And he rang me, he’s like, “Hey,” he’s like, “sorry I called so late, I just wanted to let you know I’ve been, you know, I can’t go to sleep and I’ve just been like writing down ideas on how I can best protect you, because I do understand if we do decide to do this, if you’re not protected then it’s not going to work.” And he was talking about like when you’re in the therapy room, you know, no one, there’s no, there’s going to be no camera crew, like the cameras were just going to be on shelves and it’s just me and the therapist. And he was like, there’s going to be no team or like someone standing there with a mic in your face while you’re talking about these things and it’s all going to be transcribed as well and what he’s going to do is just like, he would be the only one to read the transcribed parts and just get the relevant parts of it.
E: Oh wow.
K: And then the rest no one would get to hear, like he wouldn’t even get to hear it and it will all get like you know locked away and destroyed and he would only get the relevant parts to the program and I was just like wow that’s an interesting way to protect someone and that’s not I couldn’t think of doing something like that so when I saw you know the level of motivation and the care he had around it then I started to sort of warm up to the idea and realise actually he really does want to do something good here it’s not like this thing of let’s just get someone and
put them on TV and let’s hear these, um, like you know these things they’re going through in their life and it’s gonna be good telly to watch when I realised it wasn’t about that, then I sort of warmed up to the idea.
W: That’s, that’s amazing, Kema. And so just for people who haven’t seen the program, and we will of course put a link to the program on BBC iPlayer in the show notes, the backbone of the program, am I right in saying, is essentially you having some therapy sessions, in a, just you and the therapist alone in that room. And we just sort of, we are, as we said in the introduction, we are getting a front row seats in that process. Would that be the backbone of the piece, would you say?
K: Yes, I would definitely say that. And as well, it’s a 30 minute documentary and it was filmed over eight sessions. So now we also got a thing each session is like an hour, sometimes an hour long. And then on top of that, there was also like stock footage of me, you know, running me, meeting up with friends.
K: I think of all of that condensed in 30 minutes, you, you were never really going to hear the, the detail which you don’t really want other people to hear about.
K: You’re just hearing the relevant parts. And when you do watch the documentary as well, I remember watching it, I was like, “That’s so weird to see myself,” but I could also see the change within my physicality, the way I was communicating things across, the change from the beginning. I could see
E: Your body language is like totally different.
K: Yes, and that is such a weird thing to see in myself because it’s me and I’m watching me doing it. But I remember being in the room because it got to the point where I was so comfortable and because I couldn’t see the cameras, the cameras are like hidden and it’s just me and the therapist. Those times where I was just so in it, the, when I kind of forgot the cameras were there. So it’s one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever done to be honest.
E: One of my favourite scenes in the documentary actually is when you go and have, just for like a meal or some drinks or whatever with your mates. I really liked that because like you said you seem, like that’s a good example of how your like body language and everything is just so different to when you’re first sat on the therapist’s sofa. I thought it was really interesting and honest as well that, I think you said that like your mates initially were like what happens in therapy? like why are you doing that? What is it, kind of thing? And yeah, it was just interesting to hear their different kind of views on it. ‘Cause i think one of them’s like, “Well, I’ve got you guys, haven’t I?” Which is really nice. And another one was like, yeah, there’s times when I probably could have done with a bit of help. Like it was just really nice to watch it.
K: Yeah, no, thank you, I think as well. It just kind of also shows, you know, people’s views of therapy without actually going into it as well and how much people do suffer from mental health.
‘Cause one of my friends did say, ah, you know, well, I’ve got you guys and there’s something my therapist told me, she said, it is good to have friends, it is good to have people who you care about, people you can talk to, but it’s like when you are getting the professional help, they’re able to help you process it, because that’s what they do as a profession, you know, they specialise in that,
K: whereas in your friends don’t, they can take you out, go see a movie, go see film, go for food but at some point you’re you’re gonna have to leave your friends and then at some point you’re going to be alone with your thoughts so it’s like what do you do in that point and then that’s the therapist’s job to help you do that.
E: And now we’re just going to go to a short break.
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E: So obviously you were navigating really personal and intimate subjects for TV. You were saying that kind of you hadn’t really had that kind of therapeutic help before. So I was just wondering is that therapist your therapist?
K: Yes, still currently.
E: Yeah, that’s so cool.
K: Yeah, still currently going through therapy and I think, you know, what Middle Child was really great doing with the BBC as well, as they said part of the duty of care is it wasn’t going to be a case of we’ll do therapy for the documentary and then we stop it. So they’re actually currently still paying for my therapy now which I’m really fortunate to do and they said you know just keep going until you know you feel like you’re like basically there’s no sort of time limit. I mean don’t get me wrong I’m not going to do it for the next 10 years
while they’re funding it but the fact that they’re still funding it I, I think is super amazing and it kind of shows their intentions as well. So, still going through therapy.
E: And so because you’d not had it before though, so how did you choose a, like how did you know what to look for in choosing and finding a therapist?
K: So I didn’t really know what I was looking for but I remember saying to Andrew, I’ll sort of know when I see it.
K: So what he’d done is I had to interview some therapists and then just speak to them and, and I felt, okay, well, if I can find a sort of connection, then that’ll be great. But what’s really, well, not strange, but what I figured out while going through the process is like anyone who was trained as a therapist properly could actually do the job. Obviously it helps to have someone you connect with because then you build the rapport and then you’re more inclined to kind of share you know stuff. But the techniques and the process is all the same. And she even said to me, she was like, “Yeah, no, this is what we trained to do.” But I wouldn’t have known that until going through therapy. So I think it’s also super important to connect with your therapist.
W: And in terms of when you were actually in the therapy room as well, did you have control over what was featured in the programme and what wasn’t, what was included and what wasn’t?
K: Yes, and that was my biggest fear before deciding to do it. Because I know with a lot of BBC, you know programmes, what they do is they film it, you don’t get to see it, and then it airs and then that’s the first time you get to see it. But because of the nature of the project, before even deciding to do it, I was also told that I would get to see it and then I would decide if I didn’t want to impart on it. I think the only thing Andrew said to me was like, obviously, if you’re like, I don’t like the way my hair looks or the way I said that, he’s like, he’s not going to change anything like that. But in terms of content, like I had full control. So if there was something in there where I was like, look, I don’t feel comfortable sharing that with the whole UK.
K: Then they would take that out. And knowing that, I was like, okay, well, I suppose I can’t really go wrong because whatever goes out there, I’m sort of okay with it.
E: Have there been kind of, both positive and negative repercussions of kind of?
K: So what’s really, I remember I was told and I had to sign some forms where it said, you
know, you could get negative kind of comments from it. And, you know, would you need to
speak to a separate therapist? Like I’d sign a load of forms just in case of what could come from it. But what’s really strange is I haven’t had one negative comment or…
W: And by negative comment you mean like on social media?
K: Yeah, on social media, not one negative comment on social media.
K: In fact, I’ve still received messages constantly about people saying they were thinking about therapy and after watching it they’re going to go to it or they started it but they stopped but they’re getting back into it
K: or people asking questions about you know what’s the process like, like I haven’t received not one and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my entire life or career where I’ve done something where receiving no negative feedback so that was a bit of a shock.
E: That’s incredible. That shows you how much of an impact it’s had.
K: Yeah, and because that was the hope and I’m glad it’s happened, but it was, it still was one of those things as in we would have never, never have knew that until actually doing it. So it still was very much a risk because I could, I remember I’d heard from a mutual friend where someone said, “Oh, why is Kema getting paid to go through to therapy?” And just for the record, I didn’t actually get paid to do it because, because like it’ll be unethical to pay someone to go into therapy.
E: To therapy.
K: Yes, yeah.
E: Yeah, good point.
K: Yeah, some people thought, “Oh, well, he’s an actor, so he’s probably getting paid to do this.” No, I wasn’t getting paid to do this. I was generally getting the help. And as an actor going in to do something like that, I deserve an Oscar, if that was acting, you know? So there was a lot of negative, when people heard I was doing it before actually seeing it. There was those kinds of negative comments before going into it. But once, you know, some people have actually seen it, then it’s just been positive throughout.
W: What do you hope its impact will be?
K: I think I did want to get rid of the stigma around just talking in general and what better way to do that, you know, connecting therapy to it. But it’s also highlighting the issue of, you know, when you see someone who’s, you know, going through mental health struggles, we always have this idea of like, you know, that life’s going in a really horrible direction, the face and this, the face and that, finances and, like, we always go to the extreme but it can be your average day person. I feel like when we’re around people, you know, we’re smiling, we’re joking, but no one really knows what’s going on inside. And I was one of those people because on the outside, people would say, “Oh, you’re doing amazing, Kema.” “You know, look at your career, look at what’s happening, look at all these great things that’s happening to you.” I joke, I’m laughing. But no one was really there when I’m by myself, alone with my thoughts. And then I knew there’s so many other people who are exactly the same. So by me putting myself in the forefront and being like, I feel this way too. I know other people do as well, to say it’s okay to talk and we need to find our ways to talk and, and connect as human beings. I think one of the most dangerous things I, I was doing was isolating myself because I was just left to deal with my own thoughts, just me but how can I do that if I’m in the box? So for me it was to inspire people to talk more, um, to get help.
W: Do you think that there is a state of mind though that one has to be in in order to be able to talk publicly about their mental health? Because I, just from my own much more limited experience through things like well, through this podcast really nothing else, I find that there, there are sometimes, situations in which I really don’t want to talk about my mental health. I’m not in the right mental health space to talk about my mental health, if that makes sense. Is that the case as well? And how do you sort of navigate that? I guess.
K: Yeah, because I think it’s all about balance. I don’t think it was in a case of like, let’s just, whenever we’re going through stuff, let’s just talk, let’s go get this, because I feel we all all have our own ways of dealing with things and like even within the therapy sessions as well there was times where I didn’t want to share too much, I didn’t want to talk too much for me just being there and you know trying to process it a little bit that would help, or there was times where I was sharing a lot and I feel we all have many different ways of doing things but kind of the, the root part of it of like you know recognising our mental health and you know sorting it out in a healthy way to move forward, I feel that’s what I was also trying to do. I, I, I don’t think you know it is a case of just yeah let’s just talk every day even though we’re going through this because there’s a lot of private things maybe you don’t want to talk about private things you’re going through, maybe bringing things to the surface it’s too, it’s too hard at that moment, even going into therapy, I was in there on Thursday and we were were talking about something and it was a little bit too difficult to talk about and she was just like, “No, no, we’re going to go at your pace.” But I think we’ve, we’ve also got to think about the end goal, because what we all do want is we want to be happy. We want to be free from having to suffer from mental health. That’s what we all want. But it’s like, how do we get there and then what is the journey? And I feel everyone’s journey is different but I feel we all want the same thing.
W: And I guess as well, you’re having to negotiate the extent to which you’re happy talking about your mental health on two different levels, aren’t you? Because you’ve just described there, your last time you were at the therapist, when presumably there were no TV cameras in the room at all and you’re having to negotiate that there. Of course, when there actually, when you’re making a TV programme about it, you’re having to also think about that on the next level, which is, I maybe quite happy talking about this therapist, but I’m not really very happy about talking about this to the world. And I guess that’s where we come back to talk about the care package, not the care package, but you know what I mean, that’s where we come back to the safeguards that were put in place by the production company.
K: Yes, and I think as well without those like the safeguards with the company and if the amount of meetings and conversations we had, if I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have even entertained the idea because in fact actually I nearly never done it because we done a trailer and when I watched the trailer I was just like, ah I feel too vulnerable even watching that and then I was like I don’t want to do it and even Andrew was like look we don’t have to do it but the amount of care, like even within the the documentary itself, I didn’t really know what the therapist was going going to ask but I sort of had an idea of where things were going to go and I needed to be okay with allowing myself to be vulnerable on TV when I’m going these places, so it’s like I could see the journey but I just didn’t know what was going to come across, but I sort of knew that there was a destination.
Now on, on TV, that was just one aspect of my mental health ’cause it talked about my childhood, you know, my mother and how that really affected, you know, my, my adulthood. And it spoke about my life at home. Now there’s so many other parts of my mental health and what I went through which didn’t make the documentary or we didn’t actually speak about. And there was stuff that I did speak about within the room and Andrew actually said, “You know, the stuff that we transcribed, I know there’s gonna be stuff in there without even asking you. I know you don’t want that on TV.” And he told me what was there, and I was like, “Yeah, definitely not.”
And now I’m able to speak about some of those things within the therapy room with no cameras now. So it’s like, you got to just see a little bit of an intro, whatever. Whoever’s watched the documentary, or going to watch it, it might look like I’m revealing so much, but it’s just a tiny little bit to everything I’m going through.
E: Tip of the iceberg
K: Yeah. Yeah.
W: Thanks so much, Kema.
E: Thank you so, so much for coming and being on the show.
K: Thank you for having me. I think, you know, podcasts like this and just talking about mental health and and just kind of always putting a light on it, you know, because I feel a lot of people do suffer from it and we do suffer in silence sometimes. So things like this do really help. And again, everyone has different ways of how they deal with it. But I think finding the most healthiest way and, and caring way for yourself to move forward is so important. And without having these conversations or having this topic spoken about, then how, how would we know?
W: Thank you, Kema, and I hope to welcome you back on the podcast some time else in the future as well.
K: Yes, I’ll be back anytime.
Thank you both.
E: Thanks so much everyone for listening. Please do tune in again in two weeks for another episode of Lively Minds, the mental health podcast.
W: Please note that this show does not constitute medical advice and is not a replacement for seeking professional help. You can find sign posting to support on our website anyamedia.net/LivelyMinds.
E: Make sure you keep up to date with our shows by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts.
W: Take care and bye for now.