Daniel Howell has spent the pandemic in “a slight apocalyptic nuclear bunker”, with terrible internet. It is quite the revelation for someone who shot to stardom documenting his life on YouTube, with his channel reaching more than 6 million subscribers.
Speaking over a Zoom call, the former BBC Radio 1 presenter jokes that his routine “of watering house plants” and “peering out the windows” has been interrupted. But despite the dystopian glaze overshadowing 2020, he has not found this year as hard as some.
“I mean, I will be honest. I’m one of those chronic introverts that’s mildly agoraphobic,” he says. “We were probably more predisposed to survive a pandemic. So this lack of human interaction, I’m not hating it. But maybe on some level, after an entire year, I’m like, OK, I could have maybe seen a person?”
Howell’s candid discussion about his mental health, often using humour to talk about difficult situations, is what marked out his YouTube channel for such success. He uploaded his first video, entitled “hello internet”, on 16 October 2009.
After a hiatus, in June 2019 he came out as gay in a video. He discussed the homophobia he had dealt with, particularly in school, to the point of a suicide attempt when he was a teenager. He is now an ambassador for Young Minds, a charity helping young people struggling with their mental health.
The reaction to his videos inspired him to work with Young Minds, one of the Guardian and Observer’s 2020 appeal charities in support of disadvantaged young people. “I felt like, OK, well I’ve got this audience now, that they care, they give a shit, and they want to do something about it. I want to do something about it.”
The pandemic “really makes you appreciate the little things that are there”, he says. It has made people take account of what is good for their mental health, something “that all of us really should be doing more often”.
On the flipside, Howell thinks it has highlighted the dire situation of mental health services in the UK. “We talk about the good of the NHS. And even in the last few years, when the conversation about mental health has been much more of a priority on the table, it’s still not nearly enough. I mean, you look at some of the statistics, and they’re all going in the wrong direction.”
He says that rather than just “token investments from the government”, there needs to be a cultural shift to “actually understand and prioritise mental health”, with a focus on prevention rather than cure. “Particularly for young people, it’s about intervening for the few people that are at the point of crisis,” he says.
Howell says he did not get much help with his mental health as a child, and as a result he has carried a lot of damaging behaviours with him into adult life. Since coming out on YouTube, he has taken a bit of a break and is now writing a book about mental health. Telling his YouTube followers about his sexuality was a big moment, he says, and they saw everything through his videos, from his breakdown at university to struggling with depression.
“I’m stood here now as someone that really feels like I’ve taken the first breath of air in my life, because anyone who struggles with their mental health, you feel like you’ve got to keep your head down and keep struggling through it to maybe get to that place where you feel like you have the safety and security that you need,” he says.
His journey online made him realise that some of the issues he had with his sexuality were fundamental to the reason why he had always struggled with depression. Aged 28, he “was starting with a blank slate” for the first time, he says.
But he worries about the future of the generation reaching adulthood now. “I mean, it’s a shame, isn’t it? The state of university in this country is a complete scam. The fact that these people are being told everything’s fine. They’re taking out these horrendous student loans, only to be trapped in their accommodation with online classes and everything’s being cancelled.”
He says it is easy, if the government thinks a group does not vote, not to be represented. “But you know, if you’re expecting them to be your caregivers in 30 years then you need to make sure they’re going to succeed in life at literally any aspect.
“If these people aren’t given some support to become functional members of society then it’s going to screw everybody. So I definitely think it’s one of the balls that has been completely dropped. And you know, young people are thankfully quite energetic and resilient, to be able to survive it, but they should absolutely not have to put up with it. And it’s gonna come back around with some consequences.”
Howell hopes his new book will help those who may be going through what he went through growing up. He now knows on a fundamental level how to make himself feel better. “I understand how to be mindful, how to take myself out of my head,” he says.
One of the most interesting things he learned while researching for the book, he says, is the power of knowing you are not your thoughts. He says that in our modern lives we are trapped in “these sterile environments, mostly trying to solve mental problems in our mind”.
“We just become prisoners of these intense thoughts and emotions,” he says. “Learning how to step back and get some perspective from that is important … If you catch yourself, while you’re boiling the kettle, going into this negative thought space, just to learn how to go actually know how to snap yourself out of that … really does make a difference, and not just about thoughts and feelings. It just makes you a more successful human, better performing and completing tasks.
“So it’s not all about yoga, and going on, you know, expensive trips to a retreat. It’s saying, if you want to be a functional human that can rise to the challenges of your life, you need to understand how to be the master of your mind.”
If you are a young person struggling with your mental health, advice and support is available on the YoungMinds website, including information about how to get help. If you are a young person in need of urgent support, contact the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger by texting YM to 85258. Young Minds’ dedicated helpline for parents can be called free on 0808 802 5544 from 9.30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday.