John Rattray

Hear from John Rattray and his experiences with mental health.

So, what is Why So Sad? all about?

Why So Sad? is a grassroots campaign exploring psychology, health and suicide prevention in and around skateboarding. It’s an ongoing effort to find a light path into what can be an intimidating subject. The question in the title is a play on some old skate-trick names: The sad plant, melancholy (melon or sad) grab, and I recently realized that the “mayday” is a relevant one too. Part of the point is that that question, ‘Why So Sad?’ seems simplistic and almost flippant—like it’s making fun of the subject. But in fact, we’re not making fun, the point is to ask, “What if we take that question seriously? Where does that exploration lead us?”

What led you to start it?

I lost my sister, Katrina, to suicide back in 2011. That was the life-changing event that prompted me to start to learn more about the subject of what we term, “mental health”. That was a few years later once I’d got enough distance from that pain—once the grieving process had become a little more bearable.

In terms of what then led me to start the project, I’d say that there were a few catalyzing factors. I think the most important is that I’d suffered episodes of depression myself multiple times throughout my life but never knew what they were.

Twice I got all the way to suicidal ideation. The first, my sister was the one who took me to the doctor. I got on anti-depressants and took some actions to get my circumstances back on track. The second time I was finally diagnosed with “depression” and so I finally had a concrete term to investigate. I was 39 years old, and it was like, why has it taken this long to be told this?

I started reading around it. My cousin also started working with the Scottish Association for Mental Health as a suicide prevention agent. So, now I had an organization to focus efforts on. Mobile app solutions for crowdfunding came about. I’d say those were the central confluence of factors. Lived experience; curious brain with a need to explore; connection to a professional organization doing work in the field; and appropriate technology to get things started easily.

What are some of the points that you’ve found most important to promote as part of the work?

Point 1: Suicide is preventable.

A major barrier to preventing it is our fear of talking about both that worst-case outcome but also just the subject of our emotional lives in general. It remains a subject that we shy away from. I’m just asking, why? What are we scared of?

Once we get into it, we find that the subject of mental health is not scary. It’s no longer all One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, diagnosed and done for. Mental health is no longer some vague dark mist that we can’t grasp. No, this is physical stuff we’re working with here. It’s physiological. It’s our brain and nervous system and—like a broken arm—we can treat and heal it. There is a ton of new understanding in how it all works. We will be better all-around by spending a little time learning about it. So that we can—as we might gently say to an upset child—use our words.

Point 2: A lot of the emotions we feel and the thoughts we think are not intentional and not our fault.

They are reactions to the situations we presently find ourselves in and they are based on the situations that the auto-reactive part of our brain has come to expect due to experiences in our past. Experiences that we had at the exact time that neural pathways were first forming and painting our general picture of what this world is all about—throughout our childhood and adolescence.

It's helpful with this one to provide a bit more context. Here’s how it played out for me.

After getting on anti-depressants that second time I went to a follow-up appointment with a family doctor, a ‘general practitioner’ we’d call her in the UK. She had me fill out a set list of questions called the ACE questions.

“ACE” stands for Adverse Childhood Experience.

Following that, I got back to feeling a bit more emotionally steady again and started reading around the subject of mental health.

The first thing I found that I read cover-to-cover was Lost Connections by Johann Hari. Hari did a ton of research for that one and he talks about the origins of the ACE questions. They were developed back in the ‘90s and, as I read more, it turns out there’s been a ton of work done since to understand how our experiences of adversity and trauma go on to then effect how our brain auto-responds to all the situations that we encounter every day.

Basically, as we grow, the automatic systems in our brains—our rapid-response system—learn what is threatening or what is safe. When you sense threat, before you even get to think a coherent thought, your brain will deploy neurochemicals that place you in what we’ve all heard of, a state of “fight-or-flight”. Essentially, the more crap that was thrown at us as kids, the more likely we are to have a more hair-trigger stress response. It can lead to us in responding to situations that are not objectively threatening as if they are. Fancy academics sometimes call this “maladaptive behavior”.

It's at this point for me, finally, 30 years later, I put it together.

‘Holy crap. No wonder my brain does this, and my stress is triggered the way it is. I grew up, for my entire childhood with a raging terminal alcoholic who I ultimately watched die in an I.C.U. from complications of his alcoholism—when I was 13.’

The automatic “situation assessment” part of my brain has come to expect chaos around every corner because that’s what was imprinted as it was forming.

The hopeful part is that now that I understand how this works and where it comes from, I now have agency to manage it. Perhaps even form new auto-responses but certainly develop a plan to stay above water. And there are plenty of simple skills and tools we can use to do just that.

What are some of those skills?

Noticing when your stress-response is kicking in. Practicing even basic mindfulness meditation can really help with that. Adjusting and regulating: That means getting yourself out of the situation that’s stressing you and using some sort of rhythmic activity and breathing to try to get back to a more calm state.

And then reflecting: what caused that anxiety, where in my past has that come from. We can’t always answer that easily but the process of trying I think is really important.

Can you talk more about the power of movement as therapy?

One of my main points of contention with this subject we call “mental health” is the idea that it is somehow separate from physical health. Like it’s some different weird thing that we can’t understand or even see, so we must be afraid of it. And then the toxic idea that if we are tarred with the mental health brush, then we are done for, damaged goods, and we can’t ever heal.

This is physical stuff we’re working with here. It’s neurochemicals, your endocrine system, dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline, and all the rest of it.

In the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, he shows how patterned, repetitive movement, has a calming, de-stressing effect that can allow us to regain access to the rational part of our brains. When our stress response is activated, we lose access to that part of our brain as our old survival systems rev up and take the bulk of resources. As mentioned, the more developmental trauma we experienced in our past, the more likely we are to have a hair-trigger automatic stress response.

That physical de-stressing is essential if we are to then couple it with the cognitive, intentional-thinking element of the therapeutic process. Then we can get on with fully grieving, healing, identifying emotional triggers, and root-causing our personal issues. The goal, as I see it, is to be able to forgive ourselves and get back to living a positive life.

There’re many ways of engaging with patterned, repetitive activities. Joel Pippus, who runs the Push to Heal program in Calgary, points out that skateboarding is particularly well suited to this—in his work it’s more specifically related to young people with major trauma and resulting difficulty with social skills, but the principles are applicable.

Skating has the repetitive motion aspect, but also, the nature of it as an individual free-flowing, unstructured activity. In the skatepark, you don’t have to engage others if you don’t want to. In the skatepark, it’s socially acceptable to do your own thing, or stop and talk if you feel up to it. At the same time, you start to naturally build social skills as you learn how your presence impacts others. For example, don’t stand right in front of the runway to the handrail.

So, stress can be calmed and controlled through focused physical movement. Skateboarding requires intense focus, even when we’re doing a trick we’ve done thousands of times, there’s a level of focus—what is the ground like, where are the cracks, how can I adjust my weight, how much speed do I need? And you do this all through the physical sensation. It forces us out of our thoughts and into our body.

That said, I’ve been so bad before that I couldn’t stop the racing thoughts. At that point there’re other interventions required.

But all in all, it’s been game-changing for me to learn how and why the actual movement of skateboarding helps us to neurologically regulate. And cycling. And playing the guitar. And throwing darts at the dart board. Pick your weapon and ride into battle.

You’ve talked in the past about your own journey and experience with this subject. You mentioned your childhood with your dad above. For those who haven’t been following along, what’s the synopsis?

My sister, Katrina, and I grew up in Aberdeen Scotland in the 1980s. Our dad, Ian, was a severe alcoholic. Bottles of Vodka per day, stumbling back into our family’s video store to take cash from the till so he could buy more rounds at the pub round the corner. Hiding liters of Vodka around the house so he could secretly drink—that level. He was never violent to us, but certainly violent to things around him: bar acquaintances, the cat, his driving privileges.

As a father, I know how hard it is to raise a single child, so I can’t imagine how difficult this made things for our mother, Karen. Our childhood was chaotic and by the time I was 13 years old, our father was dead from complications related to alcoholism.

And to think, that’s just one story out of billions. Honestly, when I think about how much chaos we go through as kids all around this world, I’m surprised we’re not in even worse shape as a species haha.

That’s a very fair point. Ok. Thanks for sharing all this so far, it’s helpful to hear the examples and really see that clear neurological connection between our past and our present.

Switching gears, how did the SB project come about?

I had been working on Why So Sad? for a couple of years and I did a project with Real Skateboards through their Actions REALized program. We had an event at the Bodecker Studios in Portland as part of the campaign. Sandy had actually encouraged me a little at the outset and asked me how I would keep it going and make it bigger. For the 2020 event, Nike SB helped with the logistics and budget and the work struck a chord with the SB Team. It went on hold for a while when the pandemic hit. Then one of the SB designers asked if I would be open to them creating a project out of Why So Sad? That conversation energized me, and the wheels started turning again.

Is there a fundraising component associated with Why So Sad?

Nike and Converse support The Ben Raemers Foundation as well as a list of other related organizations doing great work in this field. It’s done through the community impact group. They support a rad list of groups doing great work in this field.

For more on the project and ideas for how to apply this you can read John’s Summer ’22 Essays here.