Parts of the Whole: a Chris Jones Interview
Chris Jones should be no stranger to readers. His powerful and unique take on skateboarding has graced the pages of the mag more than once – and for good reason. Managing an international skate career whilst doing a qualification requires a certain degree of character, and doing so whilst remaining legit and humble makes it all the more impressive.
I tracked Chris down for an early morning coffee in between academic deadlines, moving house and preparing for a skate trip to Sicily. Our shared interest in mental health and skateboarding inevitably coloured our chat, which meandered through Chris’ counsellor training, his thoughts on the intersection of skateboarding and mental health and the challenges navigating this overlap might present.
Photography by James Griffiths
Interview by Alex Irvine
Let’s start with something specific, maybe that’s a good way to do it? See where it ends up? We’ve already begun talking about mental health and skateboarding, it seems like that might be a kind of fruitful place to start… How have you ended up being interested in mental health?
Chris Jones: Yeah, well, that’s a good question. It’s quite a big question. Maybe it’s just easier to speak a little bit about the process which led me to end up where I am today. I’ve had an interest in psychology since I was younger, I studied it at A-Level and originally, I wanted to go to university to study psychology but my tutor at the time told me there was no point unless I wanted to become a teacher, which I didn’t. In my early twenties then I had some free time and felt like volunteering would be a good use of that time, and then I had my first experience of doing real volunteering when I went to Palestine and volunteered for SkatePal in 2014. That kickstarted me doing a bit more volunteering when I got back. I did a bunch of volunteering at various places. That developed into an interest in wanting to work more in the helping sector. I originally wanted to do this social work Master’s degree, but, after having some conversations with some of my friends’ parents – who were social workers – they kind of talked me out
It was not too long after that, that I started struggling with my own mental health, which was a really difficult thing to get through. What helped me get through that, was being in my own therapy, after experiencing it first-hand, of it working and feeling the benefits, it led to an interest in counselling and therapy. After that, I started an introduction course and it kind of just went from that really. I never really started it with the definitive idea of wanting to become a counsellor. It was kind of like a stage-by-stage process, doing the introduction course, doing the certificate; taking my time with them, really ensuring it’s something I’m interested in. I’m coming towards the end of my diploma now, I’ve got a placement, I’m seeing clients… It’s been an organic development. There wasn’t really ever a clear moment where I was like, I want to do this.
I think it’s difficult, isn’t it, to get the experience [in order] to know if you want to do it or not?
Yeah. I think one of the things was the experience I gained volunteering at The Listening Place, which led me to deciding to do the diploma, because I started volunteering there around the time when I started my certificate. I wanted to have that experience to decide whether or not it was something I wanted to do. I think it was that experience which gave me the confidence to think that this was maybe something I could actually do.
I think it can be quite an abstract concept up until that point, can’t it? Have you talked much about volunteering at The Listening Place?
It’s not something I’ve talked a lot about. I’ve only chatted with other friends about it that are also interested in training to become counsellors. It’s an amazing organisation and a great opportunity to get some practical experience. But yeah, it’s not something I’ve talked loads about, really. And I’m not really sure why that is. Aside from the fact that the work is confidential, I think it’s just something I’d try to leave at the door when I’d leave my shift. Maybe in some ways it kind of helped me not to carry some of the weight of the work with me.
Part of the thing that drew me to wanting to volunteer there as well was that it was a face-to-face service. There are a lot of mental health support organisations that work online, texting services and stuff. I was interested in having that time with visitors to build a bit of a relationship and work with the same people. The idea of maybe seeing different people, texting or speaking to different people on the phone… I think I liked the idea of it being a bit more consistent.
One of the questions that came back to me when people would ask me about it, would be, ‘Why do you want to go spend your Wednesdays to see some people who want to talk about suicide? It’s quite a heavy thing to want to do…’ And, yeah, it’s a good question. I think there’s a lot of anxiety for people when you tell people you’re going to be listening to someone talk about wanting to kill themselves, but [when] you’re just in the space with someone… I don’t know how to describe it…
I think you realise how important services like that are. With such long waiting times for people to see therapists and stuff, it’s so crucial to have a service like that. It slots in that space and it’s rare. That was one thing which kept me there and I would have loved to have stayed there for longer, but with the commitments of my course I had to take a break from it, but I would definitely love to go back. I think, to have those spaces where people can talk so openly about suicide…
…it’s quite normalising, isn’t it? In my experience it never really felt awkward…
That’s the thing, I mean, it’s quite likely that most people, at some point in their life, will have a suicidal thought in some shape or form. I think it’s so important to have those spaces which normalise those conversations. It’s just so helpful, you know, and I feel like if people were able to speak openly about that it could help, perhaps prevent people from following through with the suicide. It’s such a taboo in our society.
What about with your experiences counselling? How has it been?
It’s different because as opposed to just listening, like I would do at TLP, as a trainee counsellor now I have a lot more responsibility, so I can only work with a certain client base and there’s perhaps less that I’m able to work with. It’s also important for me to be aware of that as well, in knowing what my limitations are as a trainee. It’s an interesting process, training to become a counsellor, I’ve learned a lot about myself, which is an amazing process to go through. It’s very rare that you can have those environments where you can explore how you’re interacting with people and understand the way you communicate, the things that are going on beneath the surface that maybe you weren’t as conscious of before. It’s made me aware of a lot of things that perhaps I was unaware of previously; it’s that self-reflective side of it, which has been an interesting experience.
Has that insight had an impact on your skateboard career in any way?
Naturally, I think it’s impacted numerous things, you know, my relationships… It can’t not, right? It becomes harder to shut out some of the things that are contributing to certain things, like it’s harder, I guess, to be fake in some ways. Not like I was being fake before but more just like, to acknowledge when something’s happening rather than to pretend it isn’t.
Like facing up to things?
Yeah, and just like when there’s certain things happening with your relationships and friendships and stuff, being able to address them rather than avoid them. For me anyway, I think I can rely on avoidance as a bit of a coping strategy. Naturally, there’s been an impact of that kind of self-awareness with skating, it’s been interesting because, now that I’ve started getting more experience – and like this sounds so privileged and I’m aware of it – but, like, now I’m working again, when I go away on skate trips, I’m just appreciating that opportunity. I’m enjoying it so much. I always enjoyed it, but I think I just feel more motivated again. It’s just like when you have to work a proper job again, coming back to it, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit this opportunity with skating is incredible!’ – I want to make the most of this whilst I still have that opportunity. I feel like it’s created a bit more balance. I’ve always found that when I’ve got a bit more balance in my life I can enjoy things a bit more and I feel like it’s kind of had that impact with skating. It lets me enjoy it more again.
So, counselling has a place alongside skateboarding and in the future then?
I mean, I don’t really have long term plans or expectations. I’m taking it one step at a time really. And, right now, I’m just focusing on finishing my course and trying to skate as much as I can. In the short term, I’d like to at least maintain a placement and maybe do some continuous professional development, keep my practise up to date, developing and learning and then to see what happens really… See how things pan out.
I don’t know whether I’m suited ever to working full-time as a counsellor, like a being in a therapy room from 9:00 to 5:00, Monday to Friday; I don’t think it’s ever really going to be suited to me, so I’m kind of interested in finding some balance within that as well. I don’t know what that looks like at the moment. There’s some courses about conducting therapy outside like Wilderness Therapy. I’m really interested in that sort of thing; I’m interested in other forms and methods in which therapy can be delivered.
What do you think that interest stems from?
I think just being a skateboarder, having that freedom and being outside all time and just like having other interests, you know? I enjoy walking and going on hikes and stuff. It’s kind of just looking at how I might bring my other interests in, to make the job a little bit more long-lasting. I imagine if I had to just work full-time in a counselling room, I’d probably burn out. I think I need a bit more variation and changes in the environment. If I’m going to have to work full-time for the rest of my life, I’d like to make it as enjoyable as I possibly can.
What about the intersection between mental health and skateboarding? Is that interesting to you?
I find it really interesting, yeah, like, actually we just finished a piece of research from my course and one of the things I was interested in was looking at ways in which therapy can be integrated with skateboarding. Originally, I wanted to conduct a kind of skate workshop, to try and look at a way in which my practise – which is integrative – might work with skateboarding; looking at how the two can complement each other. Due to limitations, I ended up just looking at the psychological benefits of skateboarding. But yeah, I feel like there’s a space for skateboarding and counselling to come together.
Do you think skateboarding might be beneficial for some people’s mental health?
I mean, skateboarding’s been hugely beneficial for my mental health. I mean, physical exercise in general… I think there’s so much out there that proves this, the mind-body link has been something that people have been aware of for years, right? For centuries people have talked about treating the person as a whole. More recently, there’s a book by Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, and Gabor Maté, in his book When the Body Says No, [which suggest] that the body can help our minds. I think skateboarding offers that kind of opportunity, as well as helping people. I think [with] any kind of physical practise or somatic practise you can access more in a person if you’re kind of tapping into that alongside talking therapies.
Do you think there’s a psychological component to skateboarding, that’s beneficial as well?
I think it’s both. It’s impossible for it not to be psychological, right? That’s what I’m saying. It’s like the two are interconnected – you can’t separate the two. There are so many psychological benefits from the physical, but also, you know, there is a physical benefit as well. But I guess it’s perhaps the emotions and things you can access through working with the body too. There’s some work from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio that explains this way more clearly than I can.
I suppose I was wondering about maybe like a point of difference between some [other] physical practises, let’s say, yogic practise or say, rugby, for mental health might be quite different. I wonder if you think there’s anything specific about skateboarding that might have a unique effect?
Yeah, that’s something which I’m not entirely sure about. People talk about skateboarding having benefits for things like self-esteem, confidence, resilience perhaps, and I guess that you could look at some of those things that people talked about, look at how that can be worked with alongside, perhaps like a form of therapy… I guess skateboarding is also a way to get people engaged, I think it can be hard for some people to talk about emotions, to describe them and to have that lan-guage. And there is research to suggest that physical activities like yoga can help people access some of those modes or tap into them; I’m wondering if skateboarding would be used in the same way. I’m not really sure about the uniqueness of skateboarding as it shares so many similarities with other activ-ities such as dance, perhaps, but I imagine there’s something unique that skateboarding could offer. I’d love to learn more about it and do some more research around that after I finish my course; it’s something I’m curious about.
Before we started you spoke about interviews coming up and how you end up talking about a lot of the same kind of subjects… Do you feel like skateboarding and mental health is an unlikely marriage? Where do you think interviews like this sit with people?
I’m not sure. It’s interesting because every time I get interviewed, it’s what everyone wants to speak to me about. I’m conscious that, for some people, these are two things that you might want to keep very separate. You know, you want to go and have your therapy, see your therapist and then you go skate and maybe when you pick up a skate magazine you just want to read about baggy trousers and not mental health. Maybe you want to keep those two things apart. I guess because I’m doing this training and I’ve talked openly about my mental health, I’m naturally someone to talk to about mental health within skateboarding, but it may not always be something I want to talk about. I also sometimes feel it’s important to have some separation between the two. It’s kind of nice just to have that space where I can switch off from some of that stuff as well and go skate and not think too much about psychology or mental health. It’s quite nice to have those boundaries but it is difficult to keep the two separate, especially when you’ve got to do an interview. Despite this, I am interested that people are looking at ways of integrating skateboarding and counselling and, like I said earlier, it’s something I would be quite interested in doing at some point. Maybe if there’s a way of me also integrating it, so it could also be something I could incorporate, like workshops or something to help with certain things.
It sounds like quite an uncomfortable position to be in, but here you are in it…
Yeah. And sometimes it can be a bit uncomfortable.
Part of the contract to engage as a mental health provider, be it, counselling, psychology, psychotherapy, whatever, there are clearly defined boundaries, in terms of when your work is appropriate and ethical, and when it’s not. Skateboarding is traditionally not very kind of rule orientated, does that require a different approach or does it need to bend? Or are we talking about a new approach altogether?
This is the thing, right? I don’t know how therapeutic it would be. Containment and boundaries are so, so important in therapy. If you’re having a group, say a skate workshop, with a bunch of people that may just see each other down the skatepark, maintaining things like confidentiality, this is where I think more thought needs to go into it. When it would come to designing something like that, you need to take all that stuff into consideration.
When I started doing the diploma I was really like, ‘I want to keep the counselling stuff very separate actually from my skating stuff’ and here I am talking about trying to think of ways of blending the two together. I’m still figur-
ing things out and what I want to do; there’s almost a part of me wanting to bring the two together and another part wanting to keep the two things a bit more separate. I sometimes feel like I’m being an artist who’s a skater that doesn’t want to be like a skate artist, they want to be an artist in their own right.
Not a skounsellor.
I don’t want to be a skounsellor. I’d like to get my qualification and then come back and figure out a way of maybe integrating the two. I think, right now, for me it’s way too early on to try and think of that. So, I’m about to contradict pretty much everything I’ve said so far, I think I’m very much looking at trying do this stuff separately at the moment but it’s almost impossible to do that, really, to keep them both completely separate, ‘cause you know when you’re having an interview, when you know people ask you what you’re doing, you can’t not talk about what it is you’re actually doing or thinking. Even in my counselling, when it comes to looking at who I am and what’s going on, skateboarding comes into it. Yeah, it’s a learning curve as well, as far as, how much I want the two worlds to come together at times.