Model and activist Adwoa Aboah on isolation and #CopingTogether

Updated 14th May 2020
Model and activist Adwoa Aboah on isolation and #CopingTogether
Written by Melissa Mahtani, CNN
Adwoa Aboah understands how scary the isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic can be, but the British model and activist wants you to know you're not alone.
Using her platform Gurls Talk -- an online community that she co-founded in 2015 as a safe space to address issues of mental health -- she's launched an initiative called #CopingTogether, to encourage people to stay connected and focus on their mental well-being at this time.
"I'm coming from a completely different place to so many others out there in terms of, I have a roof over my head, I have family by my side, but in regards to my mental health it has brought up so much in regards to isolation," she said in an interview from her home in London.
"Isolation was something that I did when I was depressed. Isolation was something that has very negative connotations in regards to my journey from then until now. And so I'm having to maneuver around those triggers," she said, adding that we need to focus on the long-term effects this crisis will have on our mental health, and not just our immediate experiences.
Aboah founded Gurls Talk after recovering from a suicide attempt five years ago. Since then she has talked openly and honestly about her struggles with mental health, bipolar disorder and addiction, and has used Gurls Talk as a way to help others escape the trauma she went through, by giving them a platform to openly connect and share their own experiences.
The Gurls Talk community is now 262,000-strong on Instagram, and it has held live events in London, Los Angeles, New York, Mexico and Ghana. Events have currently moved online, including a recent Q&A with the theme "Coping with change and adaptation," and Aboah also hosts a weekly podcast.
Her experience of recovery is what prompted Aboah to launch the #CopingTogether movement. It encourages people to use art, from poetry to photography to writing, as a means to express their feelings -- positive or negative -- and to foster community.
Adwoa Aboah at a Gurls Talk event in Ghana (2019)
Adwoa Aboah at a Gurls Talk event in Ghana (2019) Credit: Francis Kokoroko/Gurls Talk
"I was not able to articulate what was actually going on in my head but was given space to start putting it down on paper," she said. "And that's a massive part of #CopingTogether."
She stressed that this is not a results or talent-driven initiative. "It's not about being the most amazing writer in the world. It's not about being a Picasso, but it's about having that chance to really -- going back to our ethos in regards to not feeling alone -- finding stories that you can relate to, finding people that speak to you in regards to how you're feeling at this time."
Submissions to the #CopingTogether initiative have ranged from sketches of loved ones to poems about acceptance and artwork promoting joint struggle. Aboah says she's encouraged by how positive the response has been.

Lessons learned in lockdown

A typical day for Aboah under the coronavirus lockdown consists of lots of Gurls Talk, lots of gym, reading and lots of eating.
"We've been eating the most amazing curries I've ever had," she said, although she admits to not cooking any of them. "I'm trying, but you know what? There are some things that maybe don't change. I wasn't into cooking before Covid-19 happened. And I don't think I'm into cooking now or after Covid-19," she joked.
One of the things she is actively enjoying about this time is that apart from Gurls Talk, she's been taking a break from social media.
"Before this happened, I was doing a lot of events and it was so busy and I think I'm really enjoying not being so visible for my appearance," she said.
Adwoa Aboah at the Gurls Talk x Coach Festival (2017)
Adwoa Aboah at the Gurls Talk x Coach Festival (2017) Credit: David M Benett/Getty Images
"I was finding it quite stressful having to like appear to be just great all the time and look great all the time. I'm really enjoying that I can just roll out of bed, put my gym kit on, have a shower. I don't need to look good for anyone."
While Aboah acknowledged that the modeling industry can be part of the problem in creating an unattainable image for young girls to aspire to, she said it's never specifically been the cause of her own issues.
"I'm so very grateful for the platform that they've given me to share what really matters me. So I hope that once this is all done I am able to take back my place and do even better, do it even more authentically," she said.
And although she's keen to get back to work once this is all over, one of the things she's learned from her time in isolation, is that she needs to readjust her priorities.
"I've got to find some balance in regards to my life and my work life. I think because of my history and mental health, and because of it being such a large part of my day-to-day life, and something I still struggle with, I distract myself and I use work as a means to like, get through the day. And that's not always healthy. And I think that I want to change that."
Although Aboah loves what she does and is grateful for all the opportunities coming her way, she says there are other things in her life she's realized she needs to work on. "I don't need to strive for perfection all the time because it's exhausting. So, that's a big one."

Tips for coping with Covid isolation

Aboah's advice to others who may be grappling with their own mental health during this time is to realize that they're not alone, and to accept their feelings and gradually work through them.
"My feelings aren't necessarily facts, they're not the reality of the situation, although they may feel like it at the best of times," she said. She echoed the words of Gurls Talk clinical psychologist, Dr. Ciara Dockery, for her top three tips to coping with isolation:
1. Stay Connected "That's something that I'm really concentrating on as well, because I get very in my head and I think that I can do it all myself, although I don't want to be a burden on anyone, but like, stay connected."
2. Reach out to friends and invest in your community "Obviously we have to physically distance ourselves, but we can keep that line of communication with each other. We need to check in on each other and make sure that we're all okay. And it's definitely helped me, in moments of stress, to just like actually pick up the phone and talk to people."
3. Remain hopeful "Think about what we're hopeful for. What are we looking forward to? Maybe it's holding someone's hand, maybe it's dancing with all your friends or seeing a family member you haven't seen in ages. That's something I'm holding quite close right now. What am I looking forward to even if this world is a different place once this is all done? What brings me happiness?"
Asked what the future holds, Aboah says she's determined to make platforms like Gurls Talk an integral part of the education system. She wants to create and provide an opportunity for young people to deal with their mental health and help remove the stigma attached to it.
"So many lives have been affected by this, we're all going to need a lot of help," she said.
And while Aboah's hopeful this pandemic can be used as a springboard for positive change in society, with a renewed focus on mental health, she doesn't shy away from how overwhelming this time alone can be.
"It's scary. Those long periods of self-reflection," she said. "To have to sit with yourself on a daily basis and not have distractions of work or relationships or unhealthy distractions," she said.
"Although I hope that in the long term we'll be able to flip it on its head, and it will be great that we will have had this chance to really look at what's important, and what we care about ... and what we don't want in our lives. But it's definitely terrifying as well."
If you or a loved one are suffering from mental health issues or feel like you need help or support, check out this list of helplines and resources.
Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Gurls Talk focuses solely on mental health issues