Nathan Addai- Mental Roots

An ethical, creative brand, making media content and community solutions to improve mental wellbeing and opportunities in under-represented communities.

The cultural roots and lived experiences

In 2018, Nathan Addai, founder of Mental Roots, transferred to the University of Derby to continue studying for a BA Hons Degree in Animation. Nathan’s academic experience in Animation, Art, and Media inspired him to create content and experiences that are cutting-edge and inspire a new generation of culturally diverse creatives to improve society.

In 2019, Nathan started researching issues in black communities that he could address in his creative work. Disproportionately high rates of ill mental health diagnoses in black people were something that emerged from the research. Factors such as racism, poverty, lack of tailored resources, and cultural stigmas within African and Caribbean families are at play. Such challenges with mental well-being can be particularly complex for those transitioning into adulthood – hence the focus on young people. Creative arts and technology are the most powerful tools today to better connect with and impact this demographic.

As a result, Mental Roots’ mission is to raise awareness of cultural and societal factors affecting young black people’s mental health. The brand has started to achieve this through two approaches: by creating original animation and podcast content aimed at young black people. The second approach – constituting most of the business model - involves collaborating with corporations, charities, and academic institutions that are trying to better support ‘BAME’ communities and require further cultural insight and/or creative input to do so. Such partnerships will create animated content for marketing, training, workshops for youth and staff, and more.

A man in a grey jumper leaning over a drawing tablet, holding a pen to the screen

Growing up, I wished there were more films, music and experiences that related to my cultural roots and lived experiences- that didn't perpetuate negative stereotypes of blackness. Mental Roots is the next phase in me creating such art that I wish existed.

Nathan Addai
Founder of Mental Roots

New roots

In 2020, before the brand was created, Nathan was studying an MA in Visual Communication and subsequently, created a short, animated film called Mental Roots that paved the way for the multimedia brand. Whilst studying, Nathan was becoming more passionate about representing black British experiences in animation, as he could see almost no example of it on a mainstream level. Nathan also wanted to create refreshing, cutting-edge content that inspired a new generation of black creatives to push this art form forward. The first ‘Mental Roots’ animation was Nathan’s initial attempt to help change that, and the film was particularly focused on young black men’s mental health.

Mental Roots - Spoken Word Narrated Animation

View Mental Roots - Spoken Word Narrated Animation video transcript

Video embed-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrgO5b9IliA

Nathan first thought about developing the film, Mental Roots, into a bigger brand when he and his production team (courtesy of Rural Media) were about to submit the film for BBC New Creatives, in late March 2021. During production in the summer of 2020, Nathan started the Mental Roots Podcast as a cathartic outlet for him to talk more at length about black people’s mental health. The interviews that Nathan had with his black friends and acquaintances about their experiences added a fresh, bigger-picture perspective to the creation of the animation. In Spring 2021, Nathan realised that quite organically, he had just created a multimedia brand.

In 2022, through the Violent Prevention Board’s Ventures scheme for new entrepreneurs, Nathan started thinking more broadly about sources of income- including what commissions he could start doing for organisations, charities, and academic institutions. 

Man in blue, short sleeve top standing on a stage talking into a microphone
Nathan Addai

Innovation Hothouse

Nathan first heard about the Innovation Hothouse via word of mouth, from a member of GoldBox Productions, who are also part of Innovation Hothouse. After reaching out to the Business Engagement team, Nathan was forwarded to the Innovation Hothouse colleagues, who were very supportive and showed interest in his work.

“I felt becoming an Innovation Hothouse member would help me feel less alone in my growth as an entrepreneur! I’m still in the early stages of building and running my brand, so there’s so much more for me to learn. I am grateful for the guidance and community the Innovation Hothouse gives.”

The biggest benefit for Nathan, so far, has been the Pitch Perfect competition run by the Be the Boss Programme. After being introduced to this competition by the Innovation Hothouse, Nathan was able to pitch Mental Roots and win the £1,000 prize! While being a member, he has also been introduced to other external funding opportunities and gained membership in the East Midlands Chamber. On top of all this, Nathan has also had the opportunity to participate in a few networking events where he has been able to share his brand and connect with other members of the Hothouse.

“I really value the communal aspect, connecting with other entrepreneurs who relate to my mindset and challenges. Because of my current commitments, I have not had as much time to join the regular meetings as I would like, but it is nice to know the Hothouse continues to give opportunities for mentorship, connecting, and collaborating when I need it.”

Reflecting on this time as an Innovation Hothouse member, Nathan shared how he highly appreciates the Hothouse’s efforts in upgrading and improving the physical spaces and facilities for entrepreneur members to work with. In the future, Nathan is looking forward to utilizing the bookable workspaces that the Hothouse has to offer.

Pitch Perfect Competition

After contacting the Innovation Hothouse, Nathan was put in contact with one of the Pitch Perfect competition judges of the competition- it was a great opportunity as Nathan already had a pitch presentation prepared from an entrepreneurial competition that he entered in early 2022. Unfortunately, when Nathan first heard about the Pitch Perfect competition, he was informed that all the pitching slots were fully booked but if anyone dropped out, the team would let him know. On the last day of pitches, a cancellation popped up and Nathan was contacted straight away. With only an hour before the pitching was due to take place, Nathan thought that it was too last minute to do an effective presentation that stood a chance of winning then, he thought, “What if something good still comes from this?”. Nathan quickly amended his presentation from the previous competition, chose some good clothes, hopped in his car, and prayed for the best. As they say, the rest is history!

Three individuals collectively holding a large cheque smiling at the camera
Nathan Addai (middle) with the Business Engagement and Employability team, Leanne Stevens (left), and Oliver Stonier (right)

The Pitch Perfect competition has given Nathan the assurance that sometimes it’s worth taking those risks to be successful.  The cash prize has been used to purchase new equipment to produce new content for the Mental Roots brand. The in-person feedback from the judges helped Nathan acknowledge how far he has developed on his journey, and how he can take the business even further. After the competition, Nathan has felt more confident when approaching creatives and organisations he wants to work with. Now approaching prospective clients with more of a strategic frame of mind, Nathan has connected with staff from universities, the NHS, Mind UK, and some Youth organisations.

Mental Health Workshops

In 2022, Nathan attended the Teesside University SAS Animation Conference and met a lecturer, Eric Herhuth from Tulane University who suggested that Nathan conduct a Q&A session with students. Eric had seen two Mental Roots animated films at the conference and was keen for Nathan to speak to his Animation students. Improving cultural representation in animation and visual arts was also something that was important to Eric, and Nathan recognised that this would be a great opportunity to connect with multicultural US students to gain insight into the similarities that they have with ethnic minorities in Britain.

In the Q&A session, which was held online, the university students were able to ask any questions about the production, subject matter, and approach behind the two existing Mental Roots animations. The questions opened conversations around lots of topics, such as, how ethnic representation in animation and film can be improved; how to make ethical art; cultural stigmas of mental health in black and brown communities (which some of the students in the class said they strongly resonated with and hence felt ‘seen’ in watching the animations); and the highs and lows of being a young creative entrepreneur.

“I am incredibly grateful to Nathan Addai for visiting my Animation Studies class at Tulane University. His willingness to share his creative processes and personal experience addressing the mental health challenges of black and other minority communities inspired and empowered students to feel that they too can contribute to positive social change. Nathan’s genuine compassion for others created a comfortable space for students, many of whom shared how his work impacted them. This was especially true for students of colour who described how Nathan’s animation reflected their experience of inter- and transgenerational trauma. This made Nathan’s visit an invaluable and memorable moment of learning and healing for the entire class. Thanks, Nathan!” - Eric Herhuth (Assistant Professor), Tulane University, USA

The Boys’ Mental Health workshop was incredibly important to Nathan as Mental Roots initially started with a focus on black male mental health. As men, particularly those past their 40s, are the most likely to commit suicide, Nathan is aware that his work has to inform and empower males, especially while they are young. This workshop was aimed at helping teenage boys / young men by critically analysing popular ideas of masculinity and then identifying their positive and negative impact on young men like themselves. The workshop also provided them with a ‘safe space’ to learn how to be more transparent about their own mental and emotional challenges, and how they can support their male peers too. The Boys’ Mental Health workshop was part of a program run by Empowerment Youth called ‘Street to Success’ – a series of enrichment activities for teenage boys in Derby who have struggled to integrate with mainstream education.

In the session, the group had a chance to dissect images and influencers in music and media, and also discuss the ideas of masculinity they portrayed and what problems could stem from this. As this was the first time that Nathan had conducted this session, it was a learning curve in seeing how engaged (or disengaged!) this demographic of boys can be. Learning how to engage different kinds of people can be awkward sometimes, but Nathan believes that patience and a growth mindset are key to reaching people. The workshop has helped Nathan to adapt outside of his comfort zone and thus, improve his service.

"We were massively inspired and in awe of Nathan with his patience and attitude while leading this session. Nathan used his humorous wit to bring back the engagement from the group when it was lost and made a point of having a conversation with each individual pre-session, which proved to aid him during the workshop delivery. 

Although there is still a way to go with these young lads when it comes to discussing mental health confidently - as there is only so much one can do in an hour - the conversation has been started and this is a huge success on a programme like this. I know that Empowered Youth will be eager to hire him again for any programme that comes their way and, on a personal basis, I very much hope to work and collaborate with Nathan again to see what we can do to spread his message and art form far and wide. Thank you!” - Niamh Toner (Freelance Community Development Worker), Project Manager for Streets To Success, Empowered Youth

Awards and Events

  • Winner of Violent Crime Prevention Board (VCPB)’s Ventures Award 2022
  • Under 25s Winner of Mainframe Awards 2022
  • Winner of the University of Derby ‘Pitch Perfect’ 2022 competition
  • Finalist in Generation Next Awards 2023 (Creators and Makers Award/Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Award)
  • Mental Roots film commissioned through Rural Media New Creatives Midlands (Round 3) (2020)
  • Runner-Up Prize Winner for Coventry Phoenix Film Festival 2022
  • Featuring as an academic presenter at the annual SAS Animation Conference 2022 (hosted at Teesside University)
  • Shortlisted film in the BFI Future Film Festival 2023
  • Screenings in Five Lamps Film Nights (2023) at Dubrek Studios
  • Featured film in the Flatpack Film Festival 2023
  • Winner for Spotify Next Wave Podcasts 2021 (student competition)
A Creative Entrepreneur's Reflection on 2022 - Spoken Word Poem

View THANK YOU, '22 - A Creative Entrepreneur's Reflection on 2022 | Spoken Word Poem video transcript

Video embed-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lQjuSr1-KI

Future growth for Mental Roots

At the moment, Nathan is working a full-time job and has been focusing on Mental Roots in his spare time. Despite this, he has squeezed in some time to network with more practitioners within youth work and mental health, as well as staff in various universities. There are more commission ideas being discussed and another new animation commission from a production company in London. All of which, sounds very exciting!

For now, Nathan’s most immediate plans involve creating more content for his portfolio and more workshop commissions. All these workshops will be tailored toward bettering cultural insight into the well-being of black and minority ethnic (BAME) young people. To help do more of these commissions and scale in quality and impact, Nathan is striving towards building a team! He is looking for a team of highly skilled, diverse individuals with backgrounds in mental health, youth work, content creation, or creative arts. Nathan wants to learn from, and partner with such individuals to take the Mental Roots movement forward. The University of Derby will proceed to support Nathan as he continues to spread his Mental Roots message, and as always, we wish him the best of luck on his journey. 

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