Having Mental Illness…Can Be Good?

In this closing post for Mental Health Awareness Month, Kristen reflects on what she’s learned during a month of posts by people she knows. And in that time, she discovers that having mental illness isn’t always a bad thing. 

Suedle of Kristen in green t-shirt shaking with hands up, sue and Kristen hugging each other in the middle shaking together, green dragon with STIGMA on its shirt roaring at them - this is what having mental illness feels like

Hatching an idea

Sometime in March, when we started planning for Mental Health Awareness Month, Sue had this idea to tell a story with our posts – just one story of one person experiencing mental illness. In true Committed fashion, we began brainstorming what this might look like, and so it grew. What if we told this person’s story through the voices of the people around them instead? So many of our posts for Committed are first person experiences of mental illness. What if we showed what it was like having mental illness from the perspective of someone who knows or even loves someone else with it?

The idea comes to life

And so my mind immediately started churning. Who would I ask if we were going to my story for this? And I came up with a number of people that could provide something. Maybe they could do a blog post, a podcast or a video. These could shed light on what it was like to know someone with mental illness – to know me. At that time, I was purely in idea-generating mode, so I got excited – this could be really cool. It could also be a great way to show that even if mental illness doesn’t affect someone directly, it can still have an impact. I immediately shot off an email to about fifteen different people to see who would bite, and then went on about my business, considering that part of my work done for the month.

“What have I done?”

Then the first blog post came back. Before I even opened it, I thought to myself, “What have I done? I don’t want to know what people think of me and my depression and anxiety! This was a horrible idea. This was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea.” I waited almost an entire day before opening the document to read it. And then, once I did, I started breathing again. This was, well, it was frankly one of the most accurate descriptions of me that I could have hoped for. Then again, this was my best friend – it would make sense that she would be so on the mark while still being supportive. What would happen when my boss sent me hers? Or I talked to my son?

Having mental illness…can be good?

And then another post came in, and another. Soon I realized what they all had in common – besides me and mental illness, of course. These posts were less about me, and more about how knowing someone with mental illness – and more importantly in some cases, someone who was open about their mental illness – had changed their lives. And they had all been changed in some way – for the better. Some found it was easier to be open about their own illnesses. Some used what they learned to help the people they work with and supervise. And some were just more aware about the challenges of others. But all of them gained from me sharing my experiences.

Now what?

Now that Mental Health Awareness Month is over, what do we do? How do we take what we’ve learned and apply it? We are educators, after all. Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • Print off The Committed Project Toolkit and use with your co-workers or staff
  • Try doing the Spoon Theory activity yourself or with others to gain a better understanding of how it feels to have mental illness (password: GiveMeTheSpoons)
  • Use one of the posts from The Committed Project blog to start a conversation – the more we talk about it, the less the stigma can hurt us
  • Continue to read about mental illness and talk about it – all year long. It doesn’t go away for those of us who have it, and we can’t contain our experiences to one month.

We hope you’ll continue to check out The Committed Project for more great stories, resources and information about mental illness in higher education professionals. Mental illness affects us all the time – we need to keep discussing it.

About the Author

Kristen Abell is one of the two co-founders of The Committed Project and is our Executive Director of Awareness and Advocacy. Kristen blogs frequently about the issue of mental illness, especially her depression, and this month The Committed Project featured her story during Mental Health Awareness Month. She is extremely relieved that this microscopic look at her life is over. She’ll continue fighting the stigma around mental illness in higher education as long as she can.

My Mom Has Depression

Aedan is Kristen’s 11-year-old son. He has known that his mom has depression for the past three years – ever since a particularly bad episode almost ended her in the hospital. Since then, he has had multiple discussions with both his mom and his dad about mental illness. His dad interviewed him recently about his thoughts on mental illness for this video.

Kristen in glasses smiling with Aedan in blue t-shirt, also smiling. Aedan's mom has depression - he talks about it in the video in this post

My Mom Has Depression

Kristen has written about her relationship with Aedan before and how mental illness plays a role. Read Kristen’s letter to Aedan about her depression.

Resources for talking to kids about mental illness

Talking to Kids About Mental Illness – American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Should You Tell Your Kids About Your Mental Illness – PsychCentral

How to Talk to Kids and Teens About Mental Illness – U.S. News & World Report

About the Author

Aedan is one kick-ass kid. Seriously, not only does he understand mental illness and depression, he loves Harry Potter, Minecraft, and riding his Y-Fliker around the neighborhood. He also doesn’t like haircuts, just finished fifth grade, and would want you to know that he’s working on having his own awesome YouTube channel – as soon as he figures out all the technical stuff. He is loved dearly by both his mom and dad, and he’s just a good human being.

Creativity and Mental Illness

Supervising someone with mental illness can have unique challenges, but there can also be positives. Find out more from Kristen’s boss, Alia, about what happens when creativity and mental illness combine in the workplace.

What it means to be creative

I have a theory about creative people.

But first I should clarify. When I say creative people, I’m not distinguishing them by skill or talent. I’m talking about their motivation, their creative drive. Everyone has the ability to be creative on some level. But some people are more naturally inclined to tap into their imagination than others.

The people I’m talking about, though, are not just inherently imaginative. They are driven – regardless of actual talent – by a restless need to make sense of the world. They do this by interpreting it and reframing it over and over again in various ways.

The vulnerability of creating

We—because yes, I count myself among those both cursed and blessed by this creative imperative—tend to be more sensitive than other people. We’re more sensitive because the act of creation requires an openness to our senses, our subconscious thoughts and our instincts. Being open in this way can make us vulnerable, and we are constantly left exposed and raw by our endless need to create.

On top of this, any attempt to share our creations brings with it the certainty of judgment. People will respond to whatever we made and have opinions about it—both good and bad. If they are particularly astute, they might also learn something about us from our work. Sometimes it is something we didn’t even realize we had exposed.

When creativity and mental illness meet

My closest friends share my creative impulses, and I have worked with many creatives in my career who also fall into this category. We have a lot in common, but the commonality that is most striking to me is that so many of us also suffer from one or more mental illnesses. I couldn’t say if the vulnerability of the creative process actually puts us at a higher risk of developing a mental illness. Maybe creativity makes us more in tune with ourselves and more aware of the imbalances that already exist in our minds as a consequence. Or perhaps it’s merely an odd correlation that has nothing to do with causation at all. Whatever it is, creativity and mental illness appear together often.

I said at the beginning that I have a theory, but I suppose theorizing is probably better left to someone who is more adept at science than me. All I can speak to is the pattern I have observed. And as a supervisor of a group of creatives, I have seen this pattern continue. Mental illness is a factor for many of the people on my team, and I can’t afford to ignore the impact these illnesses have on our daily work. I’m lucky in that I have some expert support in this area.

Having an employee who is “out” with her illness

I have known Kristen Abell for nearly a decade now. We have been friends and colleagues in various contexts over the years, and I currently have the privilege of being her supervisor. While I don’t recall when we first started talking about our experiences with mental illness, we have had many conversations about the subject over the years. I am someone who struggles with anxiety and depression and has also supported family members with similar illnesses. I can tell you first-hand how wonderfully reassuring it is to be able to talk to someone who understands what it’s like. It’s especially important in a society that is so dismissive of these issues.

Kristen has always been open about her experiences. That openness fosters honest discussions and removes stigma. Of course, not everyone is as comfortable sharing their experiences as she is. But if even one person is willing to speak up, everyone else feels more accepted.

The co-worker relationship

Many people on our team seek Kristen out when they are struggling. They ask for advice or merely share their own feelings without fear of judgment. She has inspired me and others on our team to be more open about our own experiences. Her openness has made us more aware of the impact of mental illness in general.

This open dialogue leads to understanding when someone needs to take a mental health day. Sometimes it provides encouragement when people ask to work from home. And it can push them to flex their schedule because they find it difficult to focus on certain tasks in the disruptive office environment.

We must talk about mental illness at work

In my experience, most people want to do their best work all the time. Often, however, factors like mental illness can get in the way of their good intentions. The more open we can be about hearing their challenges and working together to solve them, the more likely we will be to succeed in removing the barriers in their work.

But because mental illness is so often invisible, sometimes being open to listening is not enough. If we are feeling brave enough, we should follow Kristen’s example and share our own experiences. This way, other people will know that we take their concerns seriously. They will understand that we will welcome a conversation about their struggles.

And while I work mainly with creative people, I believe that this is a truth that applies to everyone. It’s not just us quirky creatives.

About the Author

Alia Herrman is the Director of Creative Services at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and manages to keep Kristen in line…most of the time. In her spare time she is a writer of sci-fi/fantasy literature, so she and Kristen bond over their love of writing, as well as all things geek.

Mental Illness and Higher Education

Recently, Kristen and Lisa discussed a whole lot about mental illness. They talked being public about it, as well as social media and celebrity status related to mental illness. Anyway, we hope you’ll take a listen and find out more about their discussion about mental illness and higher education.

I feel like Kristen has always been a part of my life, and my daily routine. But I think our friendship goes back at least four – five years, springing from 140 characters of authenticity at a time. I was excited and honoured to have the chance to chat with Kristen about our friendship and the interesting intersections of mental health and higher education in our relationship. So much of our friendship has been a lesson in vulnerability, authenticity and support. We have shared our challenges and success in navigating the complicated external world through the lens of our even more complex internal world. I am a strong advocate for wanting to both publicly talk about and create a narrative around mental health that is just as ‘normal’ as talking about daily life with a good friend. And I think that’s exactly what we’ve done here.

Kristen and Lisa talk mental illness in higher education

 

Transcript of podcast – apologies, Kristen is new to podcasting and didn’t do a great job picking up Lisa’s microphone, so this might be helpful.

Show notes

In our conversation, we talk about a lot of stuff. We hope some of the following resources will help translate the Kristen-Lisa speak:

Friendship and Mental Illness – An Introduction

In this #suedle – Sue’s trademark comic illustration – Sue describes what it felt like to meet Kristen for the first time and why their friendship and mental illness is so important to her and to the work they do.

Sue and Kristen meet for the first time "IRL" - transcript available further down the page for complete text of images Sue recognizes signs of mental illness in Kristen over the coming days - complete text in transcript further down page Despite being a little scared of what it might bring, Sue decides to stay and become friends with Kristen - full transcript of images available further down the page Friendship and mental illness are important pieces of how a project and a movement was born - full transcript of images available further down the page The Committed Project is born from this friendship and mental illness shared between Kristen and Sue - full transcript available further down the page

Comic Transcript

Kristen and Sue meet for the first time ‘IRL’

Frame 1

{Image description: Cartoon of Sue typing on a computer. The word bubble coming from the computer says “Sure, we have room.”}

The first time I met Kristen’IRL’ was when she offered to let me crash with her at a conference.

Frame 2

{Image description: Close-up of Sue peering at her computer with just eyes and nose visible}

What I knew of Kristen up until this point was based on reading her blog and connecting online.

Frame 3

{Image description: Sue is sitting in her desk chair, clenching the sides and shaking}

Still…I was nervous. Nervous for so many reasons. But mostly because PANIC.

Frame 4

{Image description: Sue standing with knees together, holding arms tight to her chest and shaking}

Kristen wrote a lot about dealing with depression, but I was not “out” about my panic. Would she understand this, too?

Frame 5

{Image description: Sue is in a double bed with Kristen turned to the side away from her sleeping. Sue is wide awake, holding the covers up over her mouth. A thought bubble floats above her in which she lays sideways on the floor holding her knees up to her chest with her eyes squeezed shut and shaking}

The first night, I barely slept.

Recognizing the signs

Frame 6

{Image description: Kristen and Sue sit side by side at a table. Kristen is on her laptop, and Sue is on her phone. The word bubbles above them say “Tweet tweet tweet.” “Tweet tweet!”}

Over the next few days, Kristen and I spent a ton of time hanging out at the conference with friends.

Frame 7

{Image description: Sue holds a magnifying glass and points as if to identify something}

It was around this time that I started to pick up on a few things…things that often go unnoticed.

Frame 8

{Image description: Close-up of Kristen’s eyes behind glasses. The irises are a solid black}

A glimpse of deadness in her eyes,

Frame 9

{Image description: Kristen is hunched over sleeping on a table}

Relentless exhaustion,

Frame 10

{Image description: Kristen stands with arms crossed and annoyed look on her face. A lightning bolt of irritation is above her head}

Sometimes a subtle irritability that was hard to describe,

Frame 11

{Image description: A small urn with “Kristen’s feelings” on it sits in a shadowed corner}

And the worst one of all – a numbness and a pain so incredibly not within her control, it was as if for a brief moment, all of her feelings – good and bad – were not within reach.

Deciding to stay

Frame 12

{Image description: Sue stands holding the door open and starting to leave the room}

I knew these signs, knew them well. A very shitty reflex in me wanted distance from these things immediately.

Frame 13

{Image description: Kristen stands holding a suitcase with the word “Depression” written on it. Two more suitcases are stacked next to her}

But the less shitty side of me was drawn to Kristen because of these things. I recognized the baggage…

Frame 14

{Image description: Close-up of Sue’s eyes behind glasses with lightning bolts in them}

A panic in the eyes,

Frame 15

{Image description: Sue has arms clenched around her and is shaking violently}

A subtle buzz of uncontrollable nerves,

Frame 16

{Image description: An urn sits in a shadowed corner with “Sue’s feelings” written on it}

Feelings bottled up and hidden.

Frame 17

{Image description: Sue stands next to Kristen, both holding suitcases. Sue’s suitcase has “Anxiety” written on it, and Kristen’s has “Depression” written on it}

I think these are things we both recognized in each other.

Friendship and mental illness

Frame 18

{Image description: Sue stands with arms behind her back, thinking and saying “Hmm.” Next to her, a thought bubble shows a clock, a paintbrush, hearts, a man with a baby and a house}

Hanging out and talking with Kristen made me think of my own future.

Frame 19

{Image description: Sue and Kristen sleep soundly in the double bed, their baggage is stacked on the floor next to the bed. A calendar is on the far right of the image, transitioning into the next frames. The pages showing the months of March and April fall from the calendar to indicate time passing, and May stays visible }

I distinctly remember being exhausted and happy at the end of that trip. I slept well the last night of that conference knowing the space was safe.

Frame 20

{Image description: A desktop computer with the screen visible. A “Hangouts” box is open in the bottom right corner with “KA: Hi!” written in it}

Kristen and I continued to talk over the following weeks until one day…I messaged her with an idea.

Frame 21

{Image description: Sue stands with finger on her lip, a lightbulb above her head is lit up}

An idea becomes a movement

Frame 22

{Image description: Sue is typing at her computer. A jagged line is drawn across the middle to indicate the distance between Sue and Kristen. Kristen is typing at her computer on the other side of the jagged line}

It was not a coincidence in my mind that the idea for The Committed Project was born in the following weeks.

Frame 23

{Image description: Sue stands with her back to the reader, pencil in hand and drawing a scribble}

I wanted to use my skills to bring awareness to something I had experience with…to talk about those things I noticed and knew.

Frame 24

{Image description: Sue and Kristen stand side by side with their arms around each other}

Kristen felt the same!

Frame 25

{No image}

Our friendship is more than a working relationship. It is built on an understanding of struggle, advocacy, and wanting higher ed to be better for all. I am grateful to have a friend who gets it.

{Signed “Sue #suedle”}

About the Author

Sue is one of the co-founders of The Committed Project and is our Director of Visual Translation – you can see why. By day, she serves as the Director of Student Affairs at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. But some of her most important work is the stuff she makes – Sue is an artist, an advocate for creativity as well as mental illness, and she develops relationships with people that make them better for knowing her.

Mental Illness as a Higher Education Professional

As a both a friend and colleague of Kristen’s, Laura Pasquini took a few minutes to share in a podcast how important it is to be open about having mental illness as a higher education professional.

Transcript from Laura’s Podcast

At the 2015 ACPA Convention I was impressed how you take and share more about your personal experience in dealing with mental illness in your PechaKucha talk. I was inspired, Kristen, about the way you shared yourself and continue to #StompOutStigma for mental health awareness. Not only has your effort brought about advocacy for peers in higher education, it has also made others think broadly about the way we discuss issues of mental health for practitioners who work in the post-secondary environment.

Prior to this brief, but important, talk you had shared a little about yourself and your mental illness with myself and a few select few friends and peers in our shared personal learning network. Once this talk was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, it has become an even more impactful way to initiate the taboo conversation around issues of depression, suicide, and more. A number of our peers look to you, Kristen, for making this difficult topic more open and approachable –and I can see both the direct and indirect way your sharing about mental illness issues has impacted others in higher ed.

Kristen, I love how the Committed book and now The Committed Project has become a platform for open discussion. It’s amazing to see how you have transformed this online space into an educational resource and tool for awareness to help dismantle myths and misconceptions about mental illness. I’m not sure our relationship has changed all that much, personally; however, I know your ability for being REAL about this topic has let down a few barriers that our peers and colleagues can now feel open and okay about bringing these issues out of the dark. Thank you for this. Mental illness and issues shared by The Committed project provides a starting point for conversations on our campuses and among colleagues in a field of “helpers” who often don’t take care of themselves first. I am thankful for the community and conversations that you have instigated among peers and challenges you continue to push forward as we consider how to better support staff we work with. Conversations about mental illness does not occur enough – yet you frequently remind us it needs to, before it is too late. Thanks for doing that, Kristen. And thanks for thinking about us first.

About the Author

Laura Pasquini is pretty much the bomb. If it has something to do with technology and teaching, she is all over that. Kristen considers her a kindred soul when it comes to loving and being the person we are 24/7 – even when we’re online, or maybe especially when we’re online. She also co-hosts a couple awesome podcasts – BreakDrink and #3WeduWe heart her commitment to The Committed Project.

How Does It Look to Have Mental Illness?

Sometimes the best way to understand mental illness is to see how it affects just one person. During May, we will explore how it looks to have mental illness through the experience of Kristen, starting with her own discovery of her depression.

Kristen sitting at table with son sitting on table and husband sitting on other side - I have mental illness

When we started planning for the 2017 Mental Health Awareness Month on the blog, I knew I needed to dig a little deeper into my experiences with mental illness. So I went to my journals, looking for an idea of when I realized I might have mental illness. There were a number of mentions of being depressed or upset in my journals – as there likely are in the journal of most teenage girls. But every once in awhile, something peeked through that sounded like there was something more to it. If you can ignore the melodrama of a teenage girl, you can get the occasional glimpse…

…I’ve screwed up so much lately that I might as well screw up some more. I feel miserable. I feel like shit. I guess there’s a good reason for that, though. I feel a deep depression coming on. A deep and long depression. (7/28/92)

That is a journal entry from when I was 15. People often ask me when my depression started. I don’t remember for sure, to be honest, except that I spent a good portion of my teenage years feeling pretty similar to what I’ve described here. I think I hid it well – most of the time I felt like I didn’t have a choice – I had to go to class, I had to make straight As and do the school play and be captain of the swim team and play the piano and make it into the honor society and and and… It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those things – many of them I did enjoy. But I also never felt like it was an option to let myself sink.

I Might Have Mental Illness

When I got to college, I began to be able to explain these feelings a bit better in my journal – and to others. My sophomore year of college was particularly difficult at times.

All I feel like doing any more is sleeping. I don’t want to go to class, and what’s more, I don’t care that I don’t want to go. At this point, I feel like dropping out, to be perfectly honest. But every bone in my body is fighting for my life. I cannot let this overtake me. I have to maintain some control of my life. I just don’t feel like doing anything but sleeping and crying. I know I’m depressed. I just don’t know what to do about it. (10/21/96)

At that time, there were no ads on TV for various antidepressants with their ridiculously long list of side effects (I mean seriously, have you ever really listened to all the possible side effects? No wonder people are scared to take meds for their mental illness). I didn’t know that people like me – people in the midwest state of Kansas, people who did well at school, or people who had friends – could be depressed. I assumed that, well, I don’t know what I assumed – I just didn’t think it was an option for me.

Seeking a Diagnosis

The spring of my junior year of college, however, things really came to a head.

I’m really  hurting right now. This is worse than I’ve been in awhile. I hardly got out of bed yesterday. The only reason I’m up now is because I have to work. I feel so alone. I can’t tell my mom how bad I feel…D’s been a big help, but I feel like I’m worrying him too much. If I could pretend like I was fine and fool him, I would. And I just can’t tell {my other friends}. So yes, I’m lonely.

I don’t know what to do. It’s taking every ounce of strength I have to get out of bed and go to work and to class today. And it’s so hard to talk to people. I just want to stay in my room. And yesterday I finally cried. And cried. I just sobbed. I almost couldn’t stop. And when I finally did, I fell asleep out of exhaustion. I don’t know what to do. (4/8/98)

Fortunately, it was around this time that a friend of mine divulged to me that she struggled with depression and saw a therapist. For whatever reason, that conversation allowed things to finally click for me, and I made an appointment with my doctor, who put me on an antidepressant. It would be this acknowledgement of my illness, more than anything else up to this point, that would help set the course ahead for me.

Living Life with Mental Illness

Maybe it was the fact that it was our family doctor, and not a psychiatrist, that prescribed the medication that helped me start to view my depression as an illness – not as something wrong with me. Don’t get me wrong, I still occasionally get mad at myself because I have mental illness, or think I’m weak or not enough. But I have been armed with the knowledge that those thoughts are simply not accurate. And that has allowed me to come to terms with my illness in a way that I suspect many of the people with whom I interact are not used to seeing. I think it’s for that reason, more than any other, that I’ve been able to become an advocate for others who have mental illness.

Before you get to read or hear from other people talking about my mental illness and me on the blog this month, I just want to say that I appreciate those of you who have been on this journey with me so far, and I look forward to those who will join me in the future. I hope to continue stomping out stigma with all of you for a long time.

We Work Best When We Are Whole and Healthy

by Caitlin (CJ) Jones

Each October we celebrate Careers in Students Affairs Month. Countless professionals plan programs and host sessions to spur top leaders into considering the path so many of us chose. Then we move into November, an overall tough month. We are nearing the end of the semester: faculty are preparing for finals, staff are intentionally connecting to those with various post-midterm alerts, undergraduate students are anxiously awaiting a break and second year graduate students are nervously preparing for the upcoming job search. Continue reading

Describing Mental Illness in Language that Matters

by Kristen Abell

Although I had already been thinking a lot about the topic of how we use emotions to describe mental illness, a friend of mine recently shared a Twitter thread in which someone discussed the idea of depression as “extreme sadness.” They quickly refuted the idea that they experienced depression that way – instead, it often looked like irritability, anger, apathy, etc. This led me to express an idea that I’d been mulling over: the idea that “sadness” in depression looks a lot different than sadness for someone who does not experience depression.

Continue reading

The “Should” Factor

by Carly Masiroff

The “Should” Factor

Buzzzzz

I looked at my phone and my best friend’s picture popped up. It is not often we are both free at the same moment, so I have learned to cherish the moments there is actually her voice on the other end.

“I woke up this morning and thought, oh my God! Carly is 28 today. I wonder how she is feeling? Is she freaking out? I bet she is freaking out. I would be freaking out! So, are you freaking out?” Continue reading