In conversation with Kimberley Robinson

Keep Real is a Yorkshire based social enterprise devoted to promoting better mental health amongst young people.

On the 27th of July at Headrow House, Keep Real will celebrate a successful first year and launch its new campaign, Keep Going. We caught up with the organisation’s founder, Kimberley Robinson, to discuss mental health, her inspiration and find out what keeps her real.

Kimberley’s motivation for Keep Real stemmed from her own experience with mental health: ‘I never received any mental health education at school and went on to suffer from anxiety attacks and chest pains at college.’ While following her dream of becoming an art therapist and studying for a degree in Counselling, her anxiety continued to have a debilitating effect on her mental health. The changing point came when she accessed therapy from the university. Her therapy centred on mindfulness and finding coping mechanisms for her anxiety.

For Kimberley, this was, ‘a life-changing experience and I’d never have been doing my current role or feel confident public speaking without it.’ She then started her blog ‘KimmyKeepReal’ which has attracted a network of readers, not only from Yorkshire but also as far away as Poland and Australia. KimmyKeepReal led to an interview on BBC Radio4 and planted the seed for Kimberley’s  ‘Keep Real’ enterprise.

Kimberley had always used art as an outlet for her anxiety and she began channelling her passion into clothes design while still at university. Following the success of her blog and winning a grant from the university, she decided to start a social enterprise where the profit from the clothes would go into funding mental health talks.

Starting Keep Real wasn’t without its challenges. ‘From a business perspective, I had no experience. Bizarrely, all my housemates were business students so it’s strange that it turned out to be me starting a business!’ Her first design was, ‘.. so ‘old school –  I used paint to edit out the pencil marks pixel by pixel. My first ever t-shirt was printed on a really cheap material which I soon decided wasn’t the right move for the business. As important as it is that the business has a positive impact on people, we also want to have a positive impact on the planet.’ Now, all Keep Real products are sustainably sourced using local producers wherever possible.

It is important to Kimberley that she can help others by using her own experience with mental health struggles. However, opening up personally  (as Kimberley does on her blog) is not always easy. ‘Christmas has always been a hard time of year for me and last year I went on antidepressants for a time. I’d previously never been on medication and initially found it hard to admit.  ‘ Kimberley addressed this in an open letter on her blog, telling her community ‘…actually I have been struggling, but this (antidepressants) has been beneficial and I am okay.’ Although she was scared of the reaction due to the perceived stigma around medication, Kimberley received nothing but love and positivity from her readers, who sent messages of support from around the world. She has received many messages from readers who identify with her blog and say: ‘I feel exactly the same way as you.’ Her friends have also shown her ‘a lot of love and support. ‘Lots of my friends have been through their own issues and help to inspire my work.’

Furthermore, as a young person herself, Kimberley is acutely aware of the strains on mental health which young people face today. She identifies social media as a leading catalyst for anxiety and other issues. ‘Young people are faced with what seems like a microscope into others’ seemingly perfect lives, which it’s so easy to take at face value.’  Kimberley finds that drawing on her own experience with anxiety helps when reaching out to young people. ‘There’s no barrier of age between me and the teenagers at the workshops – something that can make speaking to an NHS professional initially intimidating.’

She has also found that many young people find it easier to express themselves using the creative process, much as she does. Keep Real has recently launched colouring books as part as of their new Keep Going campaign, aimed at making mental health easier to process. People are able to map out their feelings using colour and art, a method that can be a lot easier than talking. Some of the local musicians performing at the one-year launch are also open about how they use music as an outlet for their own challenges.  

Illustration by Megan Swan @swannystudio

Although she does most of the workshops herself, local artist Megan Swan, who designed the Keep Going campaign, got involved when she reached out to Kimberley over Instagram. ‘Meg really wanted to get involved and is very open about her own struggles with mental health.’ Meg’s message of self-love is very accessible. Kimberley is conscious of how overwhelming the concept of self-love can sometimes seem over social media. ‘Hashtags and challenges can make it seem unachievable, so we try to bring it down and ‘keep it real’ so people can practise self- love in a calm and relaxing way.’

The One Year Show on the 27th of July is focused on this message. Kimberly designed the event with community accessibility in mind. With the help of Headrow House and a grant, she has kept it ‘free, fun and positive.’ There will be musicians, artwork and an open atmosphere. ‘The show is for everyone. Some people are bringing along mums and dads and hopefully it will bring a diverse mix of people together. There will be the opportunity to learn a bit about mental health but also just to relax and have fun.’ As well as this, Keep Real’s new SS18 collection will be on sale. CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) have donated a lot of materials to the event. CALM have done a lot of work on men’s mental health, something that Kimberley is keen to focus on in the future. ‘A lot of men often comment on my posts, saying how they identify with my struggles but feel unable to talk about theirs. As a female entrepreneur, sometimes my experience doesn’t transfer so easily to men, so working with organisations like CALM has been extremely beneficial.’

Following on from the event, Kimberley wants to organise after school clubs and work with Girlguiding to offer more workshops. Her five year plan (‘maybe less, maybe more!’) is to secure a store in Leeds, selling Keep Real items and offering resources on mental health.

The best part of the Keep Real journey for Kimberley has been seeing her ‘brain baby’ become reality and a positive influence on young people in the community. Her top advice to anyone thinking of starting a social enterprise would be to ‘begin before you are ready. If you’ve got the idea, there’s never going to be the right time to start; just dive right in!  Sort the legal stuff first and remember change means growth.’ For Kimberley, her idea began as a clothing brand and has grown into so much more than that. With so much going on in work, Kimberley manages to keep it real outside by focusing on her artwork and writing her blog. She also loves attending gigs and walking as much as possible.

Free tickets for the One Year Show at Headrow House 27 July are available here 

Ahead of the main event, you can also attend an exhibition and networking event on 17 July at Cafe 164 features works by Megan Swan and Molly Pukes. Register for the free event here


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