(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health is a new anthology that aims to get young people opening up about their inner struggles. Editor Kelly Jensen collected personal mental health stories from a range of writers, including Shaun David Hutchinson, Libba Bray, Adam Silvera, and Kristen Bell. “Jensen brought together sharp and vivid perspectives concerning mental-health challenges,” commented the Washington Post. “This book asks questions and provides real-life experiences and hope for the future.”
Kelly Jensen speaking at Buffalo Street Books
Jensen, a writer and editor for Book Riot and a former teen librarian, was a featured speaker on November 4 in The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series hosted by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County at Buffalo Street Books. She spoke to The Sophie Fund’s Margaret McKinnis about her work.
THE SOPHIE FUND: How did you come to this project?
KELLY JENSEN: I started by wanting to do an anthology on feminism. I put that together and it came out in early 2017. I’ve always struggled with my own mental health, so this is something that’s always sort of been in the back of my head. There was an essay in the feminism book about mental health, and I realized as I was reading—“Oh, there’s a whole book here.”
I had studied writing and psychology in college, and it sort of blended the two. I realized there’s nothing out there that talks about mental health for younger readers in a way that’s conversational rather than statistical. Statistics and numbers are important, but I know what was helpful for me was reading people’s narratives and hearing these stories about what they’ve done and how they’ve experienced their mental challenges. I wanted to compile as much as I could from a wide range of voices to show there’s no “one way.” That was sort of the way it came together. I proposed it to my editor of the feminist one and they were like, “Yes! Let’s do this.”
THE SOPHIE FUND: What was the process of gathering all of these stories?
KELLY JENSEN: My day job is working as an editor for a book website, so I read a lot and have a lot of contacts for people who write. I reached out to some people who I knew had written about their mental health experiences in some capacity, rather than reaching out to any author and asking, “Do you want to talk about this super personal thing?” These people had talked about it before, so there was some level of understanding of what that would be like. It’s not easy and it’s not fun.
And then from there, I expanded to look outside the writing world because mental health impacts all kinds of people. I did some research to find some pieces that were out there already and went to see if I could reprint some of them. There’s a piece in there from Reid Ewing who’s on Modern Family. He had this brilliant piece about body dysmorphic disorder and being addicted to plastic surgery.
Then there were a couple pieces that were fresh. One of the other contributors had a contact with someone in the music industry, so MILCK (who wrote the anthem for the Women’s March) wrote this brilliant piece that was a letter to her 14-year-old self about confidence but also about her struggles with anxiety and eating disorders. It was essentially a beautiful love letter to get through it. And then there’s a piece in there, too, from Nancy Kerrigan. She wrote this piece on believing in yourself and the ways she has found confidence in herself. And I was like, “Oh this is perfect,” especially thinking about 13- and 14-year-olds who are still figuring it out. I was just grateful she could put something like that in.
The biggest challenge was putting the pieces in an order that made any sort of sense. With the feminism book, there were some clear themes that emerged throughout, but with mental health there was not a great theme that worked, and trying to create a theme didn’t feel right. I want everyone to go into the book and get what they get out of it and not have me as an editor tell them what they should be getting. The big theme I found going through was finding this spot of being okay. Maybe not great. Maybe not bad. But right in that middle of being okay. When I found that as sort of the way of piecing it together, I also found a way of grouping the essays together.
THE SOPHIE FUND: I know the book is a little multimedia with some art pieces. Was that your intention from the beginning or did it come after the fact?
KELLY JENSEN: I knew I wanted to do it a like a scrapbook style, so I knew I would end up using art. There are so many ways to tell a story, and with such a range of experiences, art just feels like a natural way of getting there.
I wanted it to be a book people would want to look at rather than a textbook. I mean there’s heavy stuff in there, but I don’t want to people to feel like they’re going to be miserable reading it. And yeah it’s challenging to read at times, but I think the comics and the design my publishers put behind it really makes it a more enjoyable reading experience.
THE SOPHIE FUND: The invitational aspect of the book seems to mirror this idea of normalizing the conversation around mental health, and I’m wondering as the book has become a part of the world, how it has become a part of that conversation?
KELLY JENSEN: The book came out a little over a month ago, and I’ve been going nonstop since. It’s been really interesting because it’s forced me to think about my own experiences in a way I never thought I would.
I have done a bunch of high school events with hundreds of hundreds of kids, which has been awesome. A lot of them ask me things like, “How do I determine if it’s stress versus an actual problem?” It’s nice to sit down with somebody and say okay the fact that you’re even asking this is step one and that’s when you can talk to someone you trust and say, “Okay here’s what I am experiencing—what do you think?”
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what I think society-wise is causing this. In part mental illness stems from culture, but it’s also biological and just happens. There’s not any set reason. Often someone asks that because they have a theory, and sometimes you just have to say that could be part of it, but there’s no one cause, just like there’s no one treatment or course to fix anybody.
It changes community by community, too. I did an event at the beginning of October in a fairly conservative community in Wisconsin, but they have a whole commission that is focused on mental health and so the conversation in their community it not new or fresh. They’ve been having it. It’s interesting to go and talk to those kids and hear their questions and then go to a school where that’s not the case, and they have very different questions like, “How do we break the stigma? How do we talk about this?” It’s fascinating.
If the conversation is normalized, if it’s a conversation that’s happening, it’s easier to then talk about versus if it’s not talked about at all you don’t even have the language to start.
THE SOPHIE FUND: It seems like access to language is a theme that comes out of these conversations. It seems so necessary for us to be able to differentiate between these different experiences.
KELLY JENSEN: I have a really complicated relationship with the word crazy because sometimes well-meaning people can say they’re not going to use that word because of what it can stand for. But they stop there. They don’t take it further and have a conversation about mental health or do something that could further their sense of mental health care. I get annoyed because that doesn’t solve the problem, it just removes the word from your language, and ultimately from you having to think about it or stop and consider the bigger implications of the word. There’s not one way to talk about your approach to mental health, but you have to talk about it to even to get to that point where you can even discuss these nuances.
THE SOPHIE FUND: I know it’s only been out for a month, but what was your vision for the impact?
KELLY JENSEN: The school district that I talked about earlier who brought me in had community reads. They bought hundreds of copies of the book that they could distribute to students and adults in the community. They ran a number of book clubs throughout the month. They did all kinds of events centered around mental health, and they used this book because the pieces were short and persona. If more communities were able to create this culture of communication and openness, and have it come from the community itself, it trickles down. Then kids know they have permission.
I would love to see more people using it as tool to start talking, even it’s only one or two pieces and that’s all that resonates or all they use, that still gets the conversation starting.
THE SOPHIE FUND: I think there’s something to be said for having something that mediates the conversation and gives context so you aren’t starting from square one.
KELLY JENSEN: It’s a vulnerable conversation to have, too.
I was so excited when The Sophie Fund ask me to come here because what a cool opportunity to have stories take the center. I think if you start with other people’s narratives it does get easier to break into a conversation around it.
THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have a mental health philosophy?
KELLY JENSEN: I don’t know if I have a mental health philosophy. I think I have a fascination with it. I think there’s value in being fascinated by what your mind does and what your experiences are, and the metanarrative about what you think about what you’re thinking, which is hard to think about it.
THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have any other things that you’d like to talk about with the book or even just about your views on mental health in general?
KELLY JENSEN: Mental health is trial and error. There were a number of people who said to me it might take you forever to find a medication that works for you or might work for you for a little bit and then stop working. My experience was the first medication was perfect. Your personal experience might not mirror other’s advice.
The hard part of it all is if you try to hold this idea that every experience is valid and has the nuances that it does, it can just get overwhelming. Culturally we have defined what “normal” generally looks like, but most people don’t fall in that.
Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.