The book helping young people open up about their feelings
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The book helping young people open up about their feelings

For World Mental Health Day, Alex Galbinski speaks to the author of a new work about the importance of revealing emotions

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

During the emotional nights following her sister’s shiva, Esther Marshall wasn’t sleeping.

On one such restless night, she channelled her thoughts into something positive – the creation of a children’s book about the importance of revealing your emotions. 

Sophie Says It’s Okay Not To Be Okay, published to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Saturday, is aimed at children aged two to eight and follows Sophie and her friends Jordyn, Jamie and Bunny as they journey through Jamie’s feelings. 

Marshall, 31, from Mill Hill, wrote the book after her younger sister Rebecca, who had recently completed medical school, took her own life in January aged 28. 

Rebecca and Esther

Rather than locking away one’s feelings, she believes mental health is something that needs to be talked about, especially within the Jewish community. 

“There’s already a stigma around mental illness in the outside world. And when it comes to a tight-knit community, it can be even worse if people aren’t following a specific path,” explains the Norrice Lea Synagogue member. 

“I don’t think the issue has been spoken about as much as it needs to be within parts of the Jewish community. 

“There’s such a pretence that everyone has to show face. Things like Mental Health Shabbat is a step in the right direction, but I’d like to see the issue spoken about more at the top of the Jewish community, be that by rabbis or others, and for it to be a continuous conversation.”

Esther Marshall reads from her new book

Seeing the mental torment her sister went through encouraged Marshall to speak up and try to push through greater changes in the way society handles mental illness.

After being in and out of hospital for the past seven years, Rebecca was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year. 

Marshall can’t fault the care and treatment her sister received, although admits it was a struggle to access the care in the first place. 

The former JFS pupil lauds the charities “doing phenomenal work” in the field of mental health within the community, such as Jami, which helped Rebecca, but says: “I don’t feel they get the recognition some of the other charities do. 

Monkey page in her book

“It’s just seen as a little bit of a subject on the side, and the stigma is still there. It’s definitely changing, but a lot more needs to be done in this space,” she emphasises. 

“At my sister’s shiva, the entire community showed up, which was amazing, and people just didn’t know what to say. It’s always an awkward situation, but it really highlighted how much needs to be done, and how much people don’t understand what mental health means. 

“When you talk about physical health, you’ve got all the different diseases, but mental health is all grouped into one. However, there are so many different elements of mental health that people don’t understand. It’s very, very complex.”

This book – which she found cathartic to write and is self-published – introduces the topic in a child-friendly way; the friends visit the zoo,
have fun and enjoy treats. 

Sophie Says It’s Okay Not To Be Okay by Esther Marshall and Buzz Burry is available to buy now from www.sophiesaysofficial.com

“The premise is not the difficult conversation. It’s a fun and engaging book and you can talk to your children about all sorts of things. But once they want to read it over and over again, those messages become ingrained subliminally.”

The book does not mark Marshall’s first foray into writing. Her debut book, Sophie Says I Can, I Will, written in the early hours while feeding her baby son, Asher, now two, gently introduces the topic of gender equality with the young Sophie considering many career options.  

Marshall was motivated to write it after finding a lack of books with a female lead character to read to Asher. 

Rebecca with Asher when he was newborn

It was championed by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, after Marshall met the couple through her involvement with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, which funds and connects young leaders who are working hard to change the world. 

Both books are beautifully illustrated by Buzz Burry and, featuring characters of different races, are as diverse and inclusive as you would expect given that Marshall is in charge of the gender diversity strategy for Unilever in her full-time role. 

Marshall was a contender in Jewish News’ 30 Under 30 in 2017 and has won numerousaccolades, including a government Points of Light Award. 

She came into contact with the Trust after founding the charity sTandTall, an organisation that provides support to individuals suffering from abuse and bullying via an online platform, community and education programmes after her own experience.

Marshall set up a fundraising campaign during the Covid-19 full lockdown for books to be sent to children of key workers and those from vulnerable families via schools and charities, with proceeds going to sTand Tall.

As a mother herself, Marshall says she does not consider toddlers too young to discuss their feelings and sees the book as a conduit for parents and carers to help them start a conversation. 

It contains lessons she wished she had learnt earlier on: “That it’s okay to cry, it’s okay not to be okay, and to understand what real friendship is – to work out which friends are going to be around you through thick and thin
to give you that support.”

 

 

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