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.  Continue reading

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.

Using Depression for Empowerment

Sean and Kristen have been together for over fifteen years, and married for most of it. There is no one who has more insight to Kristen’s depression (besides maybe Kristen herself) than Sean. In the past few years, though, he’s seen a different side to the illness – he’s seen her using depression for empowerment. 

Sean makes kissy face at Kristen, who he believes is using depression for empowerment

Down in the valleys

For much of my relationship with my partner, I was able to see bouts of visible struggles with her mental illness. These were, for the most part, fleeting. They would come at periods of high stress, or sometimes even seasonally. There would be a period of adjustment, sometimes even a struggle to cope, and then Kristen would adjust and move on.

Some periods were more difficult than others. Sometimes Kristen could see the valleys approaching, and sometimes I helped her take stock of where she was at. In all of this, my partner found a way to pull through it. Again, some episodes were easier to manage than others, but she always managed to find her path forward. Even in some of her darker times, I always admired her ability to keep pushing. She was resilient. She found a way.

Turning the darkness into light

I think that resilience helped to change her relationship with her depression. Looking back, it seems like one day she decided she had enough of dealing with depression on her own. She made some amazing connections and met new friends who brought strength to her struggles with mental illness.

To me, it kind-of seems like she just decided to face her depression head on. She was no longer finding a path through a dark time. Instead, she decided to turn around and bring some light to others.

Using depression for empowerment

Now, it seems like Kristen has some command over her depression. I compare it to the way that announcers talk about a pitcher having command over his or her fastball. I think Kristen has been able to exert a similar control. By turning around and facing her depression, she has empowered herself and many others to talk about mental illness more openly. She is using her depression for empowerment.

The number of people I’ve seen reach out to her to talk about their own struggles or struggles with their family members is amazing. Depression will always be a part of Kristen’s personality. It’s part of who she is. But instead of just finding peace and adjusting, she is using that relationship with depression to empower herself and educate others. Kristen knows there will be tough times, but I think the resources she has created for herself and others are something truly special.

About the Author

Y’all, Sean Grube is the bomb-diggity. He is a director of housing by day, and an amazing and loving and supportive partner and father by night and day. He goes to all the Boy Scouts stuff with his son so his partner doesn’t have to, and he does all the cooking, so he’s pretty much your dream guy. Most importantly, if he didn’t support his partner as well as he does, she would have a much, much more difficult time getting through those valleys. He is her heart.

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.

Helping My Friend Tear Down the Wall of Depression

What do you do when your friend experiences depression? How can you help? Kassie – one of Kristen’s oldest friends – writes about their friendship while experiencing Kristen’s depression.

Kristen standing next to Kassie - friends despite depression

It feels strange and somehow illicit to write about someone else’s depression. Like I’m wandering into territory that isn’t mine to share or discuss. Even when it’s someone I’ve known and loved for twenty years, it feels somehow invasive and presumptuous to write about. Even when that dear, dear friend has invited me to write about it. It still feels wrong.

Maybe it’s because mental illness is such a personal experience and such an individual experience and for so long such a stigmatized condition. If you have cancer we’d gather together and bake lasagnas and offer to clean your house and drive you to chemo and watch your kids. But if a friend has a mental illness, what do we do? Do we ignore it? Do we hide from it? Do we wait to reach out until you’re having a “better day” or you’re in a “better mood?” Are we hesitant to ask “how are you doing?” Would we hesitate if it was cancer? Nope.

Depression Can Create a Wall

It can be hard to feel close to a friend who struggles with depression. No matter how long you’ve known and loved that person, or how well you know them, or how many times you’ve sat at their kitchen table and shared a meal and a large glass of wine and talked and talked and poured your hearts out into each other’s ears, depression is a wall. Sometimes that wall is tall and strong and overwhelming, and you cannot get through or around that wall to find your friend on the other side.

Stone wall in front of flowers - Wall of Depression

Sometimes, though, the bricks in that wall have been knocked down a bit and you can see your friend on the other side, working to take the bricks down with their limited energy, struggling one by one, yanking them out, to try to reach their loved ones and to see themselves on the other side. And some days that wall is just a small garden edging that you step right over to stand face to face with your friend, and offer them the hug you know they desperately need, that you need too.

Helping to Tear Down the Wall

And that wall changes weekly, monthly, yearly, up and down again, sometimes thick and impenetrable, sometimes barely noticeable, just a small barrier like a red brick trim meandering around a flower bed.  But the wall is there. It’s always there. They are always facing it and measuring it and figuring out where they stand with it. And as a friend you have to work around it, always knowing your friend is there on the other side, using all of their energy to fight against it and just keep going some days.

So you push against those bricks too. You climb that wall, you help dig out that masonry with your fingertips to reach them on the other side, you don’t disappear, you stay and help them fight it however you can. You listen. You check in. You push when you think you should. Because this wall isn’t your friend’s choice, it’s your friend’s burden. And yours too, because you love them. Their sarcastic humor, and passion, their advocacy and bravery out in our sometimes dark, gnarly world, all of that is on the other side of that wall, always.

Depression Doesn’t Disappear

And you know if you haven’t talked in a few weeks, the wall is back and strong again. And you check in. You call. You push. You ask hard questions if you must. Even if your friend is married to a wonderful spouse/partner, they still need you to listen and hear them and give them a heads up if you are worried about them. And be there. Show up. Because they can’t fight that wall alone. And the fight, the effort, the struggle only strengthens your friendship and your admiration for them. So stick with it, fight it out, ask how you can help, and show up. Keep showing up. They deserve it, and so do you.

About the Author

Kassie Sands has been one of Kristen’s best friends since way back in the college days – for reference, that’s a long time. She works in the nonprofit world and Kristen suspects that some day she’ll be an author. Also, she’s pretty freaking amazing.

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.

Get Committed for Mental Health Awareness Month

We’re both celebrating and educating for Mental Health Awareness Month this May. We’ll be sharing out stories, resources and more this month to let people know what mental illness is all about, while we also celebrate one year of The Committed Project. 

Suedle of The Committed Project founders hugging, dancing, and fighting the Stigma Dragon - Mental Health Awareness Month

Ah, May. Final exams, move-out dates, commencement activities – and quite honestly, a month where our colleagues are mostly stressed-burnt-out-messes. The Committed Project team used to think that this was a tough month for us to highlight mental illness in higher education, but hey, it almost highlights itself this time of the year.

Celebrating Four Years of Mental Health Awareness Month

This will be our fourth year celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month. We will join a coalition of organizations – like Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and more – highlighting statistics, sharing stories and making plans for how to address these issues in our own communities. Full disclosure – it’s blowing our unpredictable minds that we have done this for four years!

Last year, we transitioned from Committed to The Committed Project, as we recognized that we were ready to take on the Stigma Dragon as a stand-alone organization. This year, we have more big plans. We’re sharing one individual’s story with mental illness as told by some of her closest friends, family members and colleagues. That individual is our own Kristen Abell! We will be hearing from the people in her life through blog posts, podcasts and videos. We’re diving deep to capture what it truly looks like to watch someone you love struggle. Think of it as our version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, except with less art installations and more perceptions of Kristen’s depression and anxiety.

Educating for Mental Health Awareness Month

In addition to this intimate look at mental illness, we will be sharing statistics on our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. We’ll use these to talk about how much unaddressed mental illness can cost your institution and how successful (or not) higher education has been in addressing these issues for staff and faculty members. We will also be sharing some pieces of our Toolkit AND a new fun (free!) surprise at the beginning of the month through our newsletter. If you haven’t signed up for it yet, do it soon so you don’t miss out!

As always, we will be especially present on our hashtags, #HEdCommits and #SACommits. We’ll also be lurking on the official Mental Health Month backchannel (#MHAM2017), and we encourage you to join us there. We know May is a tough month in higher education. But quite honestly, every month can be tough when you are battling a chronic condition like mental illness. We hope you’ll join us in the conversation and engaging members of your own community during this month and beyond!

About the Author

Sue Caulfield