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Artist insight: Jason Pegler

Updated Friday, 18th June 2010

Social-entrepreneur Jason Pegler is the CEO of Chipmunkapublishing - a dedicated mental health publisher. He talks about his manic depression and how writing helped him.

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Copyright The Open University

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Hi, my name’s Jason Pegler. I’m 34 years of age and I set up Chipmunkapublishing in 2002 to give a voice to people with mental illness. In 1992, I was diagnosed with manic depression and spent six months in a psychiatric ward in Gloucester. From 1992 to 2000, I’d had five different manic episodes and spent over a year in psychiatric wards and two years’ suicidal. Up until then, life was pretty good. I was a Gloucester rugby under-16 player, school chess captain and enjoying life.

I started taking cannabis from the age of 14 and binge drinking, and I went on to other drugs, amphetamines, ecstasy, LSD. I took a couple of Es and I never really came down and two weeks’ later I was in a psychiatric ward, and I thought I was actually going off to a rave. For six weeks, I thought I was playing in a computer game and after six weeks then had an epiphany. Oh my God, I’m in a psychiatric ward! How on earth am I going to get better?

Well, the only way I could get better was by somehow one day knowing I would have the mental strength to get over it so I could help other people. All I wanted to do when I was 17 was stop the humiliation that someone else felt when they had a mental illness. The crazy thing is that this turned into my day job several years later.

In 1998, I read the book Prozac Nation. I felt ill at the end of the book because this was a famous book on depression. The person was still feeling sorry for themselves at the end of the book. I wrote for two weeks, and I wrote one paragraph on A Can of Madness, showed it to my girlfriend at the time who had manic depression and her friend who had schizophrenia. They ran up and down the room, ran around the house saying how excited they were because this stigma and humiliation I was writing about with having manic depression was exactly how they felt.

For two years, I had writer’s block and I was paralysed and didn’t know what else to write. Then, when I started writing again, I found that writing became an empowering experience. Manic depression made me more sensitive as a person and made me want to help society, but it made me afraid of society. Writing brought me back into society and made me want to help people. Writing, for me, saved my life, it was a necessity.

So all I did was write from my heart and wrote from my soul. The first words I wrote down were usually the most appropriate; the first words that came into my head. Obviously, I would go back and edit the text the next day when I would look through it, but I really do feel that if you write from your heart, that’s the best way of doing it. So I write in a stream of consciousness style, and that really, really works for me.

I’m glad I've experienced everything I have experienced, I mean it’s part of me as a human being. So, for me, manic depression made me more sensitive as a person, it made me grow up more quickly, it made me want to help people, and it gave me a meaning in life and gave me a purpose in life. And I think, for anyone with mental health experience, to accept what’s happened to you is the first step to recovery.

So it’s really, really important to accept what’s happened to you. And writing is a very physical way of doing that because when you’re writing you’re actually, you know, you’re searching your mind, you’re searching your soul, but you’re using your body as well. You’re typing, you’re thinking about it constantly. So it really is a release. And, of course, when you’ve written something, it’s like drawing a line in the sand.

It ceases to become itself so then you can go on and start writing something else, you can reframe something else. For me, writing really did change my life. It got all of my broken past out of itself, and it made me feel better, and it made me rejoin society, and it helped me have a career and it helped me be successful really. And every time I feel slightly vulnerable, it’s writing I go back to. It’s the first port of call for me.

When I’m writing I’m at my happiest. You know, sometimes I feel that, you know, publishing is a very difficult business anyway. Publishing people with mental illness is a hundred times more difficult, publishing, because it’s more intense, so I use my own writing to kind of reflect on the company and how we’re progressing and my own creativity because creativity’s been really important to my mental wellbeing.

I received a grant from the National Lottery to give copies of my book away to people who needed help to drug clinics and alcohol clinics, and I met a guy, who was a printer, who suggested that I set up a publishing company and he’d give me a hand. Three years later, after having a lot of support from this person called Andrew Latchford, he told me he was hypermanic - I wondered why this guy was working so hard and wouldn’t leave me alone!

I remember being in, I used to live in Lambeth, I met a girl called Dolly Sen, I gave her my book. I used to give copies of the book to people who I didn’t think could afford it; I would give it to them. It gave Dolly the confidence to write her own book. Once she read my book, it gave her the confidence to write her own book, and she said it started out as a suicide note and ended up a celebration of life. I can remember reading Dolly’s book very, very clearly and having tears of joy down my eyes for the last half an hour, reading that book, seeing how she managed to turn her own life around just from reading my book.

After that, started getting more manuscripts from people with mental illness and one by one I gradually took them on. Three years ago, the company grew quite a lot, more quickly, because we got support from the Arts Council. They gave us £15,000 to publish twenty books in a year, and we published them in one month, and then they came back to us with more funding and that gave us the confidence to set up more and more titles.

Chipmunkapublishing is a social enterprise. What that means is that our very core, whilst we are a well-run company and we have a great business model, the core of what social enterprise does is to help the community. So the fact that we’re publishing books for people with mental health issues and carers to give them a voice, that is the essence of social enterprise in itself. So myself, as a social entrepreneur, when I come up with an idea, I’m thinking of how I can help society. That’s the first thing I’m thinking of; I’m not thinking of how I can make, you know, a billion pounds.

Once when I was manic, I thought I’d taken six billion Ecstasy tablets, one for everyone on earth, to create world peace. So I thought that if I could take the pain of the whole of Ecstasy generation and have all the Ecstasy tablets myself, and I could reach out to the rest of the world, and I was prepared to do that because I thought that was my responsibility of someone who had found the answer to the universe whilst he was manic. But it kind of turned into my day job. I was just doing it a bit more slowly really.

I think I’m always living in the real world nowadays so I don’t have manic episodes like that anymore. I don’t jump off at a tangent, but I’m still fighting to achieve that which causes its own stress in itself. So, like, I am an idealist, I have a Utopian vision, I want to stop the world suffering from mental illness, but I know that's impossible. So like the reality is I know this is impossible, but I know from my own experiences, I know from all the business books I’ve read that the way to achieve greatness, great success like Richard Branson, a brand or an Apple or a Microsoft, the way to achieve something like this is by taking baby steps at a time.

So it’s not just by having a deal and shooting at the stars. You have to take baby steps. But without a Utopian vision, without a visualisation of a brand that really is changing the world, then it’s not going to happen. But I’ve had letters, thousands of letters from people who’ve said, you know, my first book put their relationships back together, it helped their mum understand their son who has manic depression, or the girlfriend or boyfriend, so we know that our books have a huge impact.

My aim is to really make Chipmunkapublishing a global brand. So that when people think of mental health they think of Chipmunka straightaway. That’s how I feel about the company. They say well what do you want to achieve with the company? What I want to achieve for mental health is to be part of the community that’s making the world a better place, that’s giving people a voice. If people could use different language, more positive language, and so it’s normal that we all experience something this way, the labels would disappear. This will impact on people’s health and then the greater our mental wellbeing, the more we’ll care about the environment, the more equality will be.

So it’s really about getting the whole world in tune, with being comfortable about talking about mental health. Publishing empowered me to give a voice to other people and gave me a life and a career. When I first started publishing, I thought that I could help everyone that came into contact with me. After five years, I’ve realised that wasn’t exactly true. But I do know from the 600 authors that we have and 600 books that we’ve published that writing is a cathartic experience for all of us and publishing is empowering for all of us as well.

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