(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: Q&A With Kelly Jensen

(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.”

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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.

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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.

Okay Fine Whatever

Courtenay Hameister captivated audiences for nearly a decade as the host of the popular public radio program Live Wire, interviewing notable thinkers in a variety of fields. Behind the scenes she felt overwhelmed throughout her tenure, by preparation for the next show and onstage nerves. The unpredictability inherent in interviewing turned out to be a perfect trigger for what she later discovered was generalized anxiety disorder.

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Leaving Live Wire and confronting her anxiety became the premise for Hameister’s debut book, Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went From Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things. The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series featured Hameister on October 14 at Buffalo Street Books, where she read from her first chapter “Stepping Down” and discussed her experiences with anxiety in a Q&A session afterwards.

Through candid and precise prose, Hameister’s book gives a nuanced perspective on the nature of generalized anxiety and ways to both explore and challenge its pathology. Her writing recorded her encounters with things that scared her, the page becoming a place for both problem-solving and reflection. “Maybe I could retrain my brain the way you train a baby’s,” she thought. “We take a child out in the world and show them this is here to hurt you, and these things, like teddy bears, are for fun. Our anxious brains tend to get those things mixed up. I was training my brain to become optimistic.”

She describes her endeavors as “exposure therapy to the whole world”; from a sensory deprivation tank to time with a professional cuddler to 28 first dates to a Build Your Own Burrito night at a sex club, Hameister engaged with her fears by challenging the way she related to them.

“The one shift that happened was just one word,” she recalled. “Before if someone asked me to do something that seemed strange or new or gave me a little dread, I would say ‘Oh that sounds terrifying’ pretty much every time. And now, after it’s all over, I just say, ‘Well that sounds interesting.’” This adaptation, says Hameister, removed the judgment, allowing her to remain open to whatever might come her way.

Despite these shifts in her thinking, Hameister was quick to acknowledge that this book was not written to document a monumental, immediate transformation. In fact, this trope found in so many memoirs and movies doesn’t quite capture the true nature of negotiating one’s anxiety. The reason being, she explains, is that “change is frustratingly incremental. Most of the time as we’re changing, we don’t even notice it.” And her memoir is not afraid of unveiling this slowness. The book is less about overcoming anxiety and more about living with it.

In the Q&A session, Hameister offered some of her takeaways about anxiety. For example, she describes how generalized anxiety—“this free-floating anxiety that’s there all the time just waiting for something to attach to (and unfortunately there’s always something to attach to)”—impacts her ability to write. It became an additional obstacle to finishing the book, though she was not without potential antidotes. Sometimes she simply told herself, “I am going to write a terrible first draft.”

Another part of the process is creating new neural pathways around writing. She remembers her therapist explaining, “When you’re creating a new neural pathway, imagine yourself in the jungle, pushing through these leaves and they’re wet and horrible, and you can barely get through it. This is the first time you go through. The second time you go through, you have a machete, so it’s a little bit easier. And the third time you go through, you’ve got a couple friends, and really the tenth time you go through you have rototiller.”

Hameister also addressed the importance of normalizing anxiety. So often, people think they are the only ones that struggle. “If people could talk about mental illness the way we talk about breaking a bone or lupus disease, it would be life changing to let people know you are struggling,” she said. Additionally, reframing anxiety’s purpose can be helpful to this conversation. She proposes we think of anxiety as a signal that allows us to recognize, “Oh I care a lot about this. It’s really important to me.”

Hameister opens a doorway for those looking to better understand their own anxious tendencies or better relate to those in their life who have them. Okay Fine Whatever wonderfully highlights the value of people living with mental illness writing narratives that provide true insight into the mental health challenges all around us.

—By Margaret McKinnis

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.

“Readings on Mental Health” is presented by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, hosted by Buffalo Street Books, and sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

Send Silence Packing @ Ithaca College

Backpacks were scattered all over Ithaca College’s Emerson Suites on Monday. No, this high-traffic space wasn’t a convenient dumping ground for students taking mid-terms or heading to the cafeteria for a meal. The backpacks were a powerful exhibition called “Send Silence Packing,” a suicide prevention initiative traveling to American college campuses. The 1,100 backpacks represent the average number of college students who die by suicide every year.

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“Send Silence Packing” is a project of Active Minds, a national organization promoting student mental health through branch chapters at colleges around the county. Ithaca College’s chapter, led by co-presidents Zoe Howland and Mikaela Vojnik, hosted Monday’s exhibition in Emerson Suites.

The display is immersive and thought provoking. Each backpack includes a personal story or a quote from someone who has lost a loved to suicide. “I feel like the visual display really invokes a certain feeling that just talking about it doesn’t necessarily do,” Howland said.

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“There were a lot of people who came through on the way to their classes and were really intrigued with all the stories that were on the backpacks,” said Active Minds member Kristin Butler. She said that the event was an opportunity for “continuing the conversation on campus, which is great.”

Junior anthropology major Paige Twinning commented: “Powerful and important. The visual representation and personal profiles of individuals really made an impact.”

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“Send Silence Packing,” which has visited almost 200 campuses and reached nearly a million people, is intended to generate discussions about suicide and provide information about suicide prevention resources.

Ithaca College’s day-long event, sponsored in part by The Sophie Fund, began at 7:30 a.m. and included an evening Speak Your Mind panel discussion on suicide prevention moderated by Active Minds member Kelly Madden. Participating in the panel were representatives from key local mental health organizations, including the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, and the Advocacy Center. Said Kaylee McGillicuddy, a sophomore psychology major: “It’s just nice to know there are people who care.”

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Based on surveys, the Active Minds national organization reports that most people attending the “Send Silence Packing” installation are left wanting to know more about mental health, and 95 percent of attendees rate the experience as powerful.

Active Minds has chapters or other operations on more than 600 college campuses across the country. In June, a study of Active Minds published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors.

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The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

—By Margaret McKinnis

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.

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

World of a Campus Mental Health Advocate

Zoe Howland was a half hour into her day at the national headquarters of Active Minds when she got a call from the Washington Post. The reporter was seeking comment about a new study documenting the positive impact of the organization on student mental health on college campuses across the country. Howland, a summer intern, was the perfect spokesperson.

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Zoe Howland

Howland is a senior at Ithaca College and the co-president of IC’s Active Minds chapter. She signed up as a member of the student organization in her freshman year, and now helps lead its campaigns to fight the stigma around mental illness and its education programs about mental health for the campus community. The IC chapter has several dozen members; Mikaela Vojnik serves as co-president.

“I love being a voice in student mental health, and I feel like the position of president of Active Minds really does help me do that,” Howland, who is double majoring in Sociology and in Culture and Communication and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, said in a recent interview.

One of the projects that Howland is helping oversee is “Send Silence Packing,” a traveling installation of 1,100 backpacks representing the number of college students who die by suicide each year. The day-long exhibition will be held in the IC quad, with the aim of provoking discussion and raising awareness about mental health, promoting suicide prevention, and connecting students to mental health resources. The Sophie Fund is a sponsor of the event.

Howland said that Active Minds also plans to continue building on the Speak Your Mind (SYM) panels, which are designed to reduce stigma through storytelling. Students who have gone through Active Minds training visit classes, share their experiences about mental health and mental illness, and participate in question-answer sessions with the students. This year, Howland seeks to expand SYM’s reach to places like the Business and Music schools. “It would be nice to branch out a little bit and get panels in classes that don’t focus on that in their content,” she explained.

Howland’s summer internship at Active Minds headquarters in Washington, D.C. fostered an even closer relationship for IC’s Active Minds chapter. “I got to work with the chapter coordinator, so I did a lot of corresponding with new and developing chapters to try and get their chapter off the ground,” she said. “I got to talk to people who were really passionate about mental health and just wanted help bringing it to their campus, and I got to see the behind-the-scenes of such a cool nonprofit.”

Howland also serves on the national Active Minds Student Advisory Committee, comprised of students from chapters across the country who contribute local perspectives.

Over the course of Howland’s college career, she has widened her own perspective on mental health. Her courses in Sociology and Culture and Communication studies have offered new lenses for her thinking. Where Sociology has allowed her to consider societal views on mental health and treatment, Culture and Communication studies has encouraged her to investigate how the ways we choose to talk about mental health shape our perceptions and ultimately our attitudes toward stigmas.

Advocacy through Active Minds, education in the classroom, and her personal experience have all played a part in Howland’s comprehensive outlook on mental health. And though she’s dedicated plenty of thought to the topic, she goes on to say, “But of course I’m always learning. There’s always more information to find and more articles to read.”

Over time, Howland has come to discover at the heart of her mental health philosophy is talking, sharing stories, and diminishing stereotypes. “I think you gain a lot of really valuable knowledge,” she explained. “Just getting to know people and their stories gives you a broader base to base your assumptions and knowledge when you’re talking to someone else about it.”

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Active Minds national Student Advisory Committee

Howland has made no concrete plans for her future, but she is definitely interested in pursuing work in mental health after graduation next spring. She credits Active Minds for shaping so much of her college experience, both in and out of the classroom. “I think that it really ignited a passion in me that didn’t really exist before which has definitely shaped what I want to do with my life,” she said.

For now, Howland will focus her energy on writing her senior thesis on the topic of—you guessed it—mental health. “My thesis will be about how people talk about mental health on a day-to-day basis, how people trivialize mental health while also stigmatizing it,” she explained. Clearly, Zoe Howland has much to teach us, for a long time to come.

—By Margaret McKinnis

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.

All About Margaret

Hello, Instagram friends! Welcome Margaret McKinnis, our fall intern at The Sophie Fund, who will be posting on our Instagram account for the next few months as well as writing blog posts for the website. She 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. In her spare time, Margaret loves winding down with a good book, painting with watercolor, or challenging herself with a fun puzzle (preferably cat-themed). She enjoys exploring all Ithaca has to offer, whether finding a new trail or garden, or stumbling upon a new coffee shop or bookstore. Send her your ideas for images at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com.

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