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‘More than just a hashtag’: Sara Kärpänen on the mental health crisis for East London’s freelancers

Amid unprecedented financial pressure and media industry layoffs, Hackney Wick’s Sara Kärpänen is using her own experiences to help freelancers and entrepreneurs fight mental health stigmas.

During mental health awareness week in May, Sara Kärpänen was on a walk in Hackney Wick when she suddenly found herself compelled to tell her story. 

Founder of Women of the Wick and editor-in-chief of WOWZINE magazine, Kärpänen is a storyteller by nature, using words to inspire and create change on a daily basis. 

Yet she confessed that sharing personal experiences on social media was unusual for her. ‘I wasn’t thinking of sharing anything until one day on my lunch break I found the words I wanted to use, I took a selfie and just found myself typing on the spot,’ she says. 

Contrary to the toxicity of many online spaces, Kärpänen felt a sense of urgency to share her personal experiences with the supportive community she has built around Women of the Wick magazine.

Writing on its Instagram page, she said: ‘I don’t know yet how to name what I’ve been going through recently but it has involved taking time off from work (thank god for NHS), taking a break from social media and emails, and starting therapy.’

‘Shame silences us, and sharing and taking ownership of our own stories can liberate us from the idea that we are not enough as who we are.’ 

When we meet in The Trampery workspaces in Fish Island, 36-year-old Kärpänen from Finland is poised and eloquent. Her bold red lipstick and bright orange jumper add to an aura of self-assuredness. 

But outward appearances are too often mistaken as an indication that a person is not suffering, which Kärpänen warns us against. She feels strongly that honest conversations around mental health in the workplace need to continue. 

Her Instagram post received an outpouring of supportive comments, as well as dozens of private messages from people who connected with Kärpänen’s experiences. 

She says multiple ‘cumulative’ factors caused her to take time off work for her mental health, many of which are related to her work as an entrepreneur and freelance writer. 

Women suffer the most from these hierarchical age-old systems that make us work harder, not take paid leave, and question whether we can become mothers while progressing in our careers.

Sara Karpanen

According to the Health and Safety Executive, more than half of all sick days are taken in the UK due to anxiety, depression and stress. Seventy-two per cent of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues compared to 48 per cent of non-entrepreneurs.

Kärpänen says: ‘Corporations want to be seen to care about their employees’ mental health, but a lot of it seems performative. 

‘Mental health is more than just a hashtag and we need to think about what it means in practice. Like, are you willing to allow your employees to take time off? And is there a limit to that time?’ 

For freelancers who cannot claim statutory sick pay or maternity support, and whose financial stability rides on them finding enough work for themselves each month, the pressure to work through mental or physical illness is immense. 

Much of Kärpänen’s daily work involves first-person storytelling. With such personal creative output, it can be hard not to attach your sense of self-worth and identity to how much you’re being paid. 

‘It’s also easy to take on too many jobs when you’re getting excited by them and you’re working with clients who really align with your values,’ Kärpänen adds. 

Kärpänen’s most recent mental health journey is not the first time she’s felt the repercussions of taking on too much at work. 

Describing working at the age of 24 at one of Finland’s major national newspapers, Kärpänen recalls: ‘I found myself curled up on the kitchen floor after work one day thinking: ‘how the hell did I end up here?’, feeling so unmotivated and not knowing exactly what to do.

‘And that’s when I promised myself that I wouldn’t write again as a journalist for a living and I would find a way to do it differently.’ 

It was then that Kärpänen decided to move to Vittoria Wharf in Hackney Wick, which set her on the path to launching Women of the Wick media platform, WOWZINE magazine, and its podcast, Girl Get a Real Job, which she runs to this day. 

Kärpänen fought tirelessly in the Save Hackney Wick campaign in 2017 to protect the area’s creative communities and their studios that were threatened by larger developments from the V&A Museum and the Olympic Park

Though she was eventually priced out by regeneration and exhausted by campaigning alongside a full-time job, Kärpänen still has a workspace in The Trampery in Fish Island and will always consider Hackney Wick her creative home. 

The name of her equality-led media platform, Women of the Wick, pays tribute to the community Kärpänen is part of which outlives the loss of its physical nucleus in Hackney Wick.

‘Many of the artists who I collaborated with back in the day have moved around but I feel like there is still a kind of ideology that keeps us together,’ says Kärpänen: ‘It’s the nature of cities to move on, but there really aren’t that many places like Hackney Wick.’ 

On top of the challenge of finding affordable studio spaces and creative hubs, Kärpänen experiences fierce competition in the media industry and finds it hard not to compare herself to her peers. 

‘When you don’t get a grant that you applied for or you don’t get the clients you wished for it can often feel like there just aren’t enough opportunities out there,’ says Kärpänen. 

In the space of two months this year, gal-dem independent magazine, and Buzzfeed News both ceased publication, with Vice media company filing for bankruptcy and Paper magazine laying off its entire editorial staff. 

Rather than being daunted by such widespread layoffs, Kärpänen says that she was reminded how important her work is and how she can’t rely solely on investor funding. In the future, she dreams of a more supportive media landscape where writers and contributors own equity. 

‘We have to dismantle the media systems and the patriarchy because they don’t work.’ Says Kärpänen: ‘Women suffer the most from these hierarchical age-old systems that make us work harder, not take paid leave, and question whether we can become mothers while progressing in our careers.’ 

Through Women of the Wick, she is laying the foundation for these changes, running workshops to break down barriers to entry into the media, and offering advice to freelancers and creatives about their rights as self-employed workers.  

With inflation rates at their highest in over three decades, Kärpänen emphasizes the importance of freelancers factoring this into their rates and having the confidence to negotiate. 

To protect our mental health Kärpänen believes in the power of soft approaches: treating ourselves and our colleagues with empathy to break down our work-obsessed society that tends to trivialise the value of self-care. 

‘When you turn it around and just think of it as ‘taking care of yourself,’ it loses the cringe-yness surrounding it,’ says Kärpänen: ‘I would count therapy under the umbrella of self-care too.

‘As adults, we so often forget how to take care of ourselves. For me, it is moving my body in whatever way or form, and I love running,’ says Kärpänen: ‘Whether it’s for 15 minutes or an hour, I call them my prescription runs.’ 

More than anything, Kärpänen emphasizes the importance of listening first and foremost to your body. Allowing it to stay still without questioning the need to rest. 

And when you feel up to it, Kärpänen reminds us that it’s important to give ourselves the gift of enjoying when we feel good and learning how to cultivate the feeling of pleasure. 

Following the first edition of WOWZINE on the theme of belonging, the second issue is coming out in late September and is all about pleasure and how we feel it through art, food, design, architecture, gender, sex and myriad other ways it is experienced. 

Dedicated to showcasing authentic first-person perspectives, the upcoming magazine is closely aligned with Kärpänen’s aim of fostering more honest and unfiltered conversations around mental health.

Harnessing the creative community built in Hackney Wick, Kärpänen calls on us to ‘own and share our experiences through storytelling [which is] the most important tool for creating change. It can connect people, make us feel seen and bring communities together.’ 

If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might like our article about Safia Jama’s rise from Bow Comprehensive to MBE. 

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