(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.

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.

Margaret. Instagram

We’re Back! Ithaca’s 3rd Annual Cupcake Contest

Love to bake? Get out the mixer, put on your oven mitts, and make a batch of your favorite cupcakes for the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest in the Commons on Saturday October 13.

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Contestants of all ages are invited to enter this year’s competition, who will be eligible for dozens of prizes including a Grand Prize valued at $250. The contest is open to amateur bakers only.

Attention Teens and Pre-Teens: A $100 gift certificate redeemable at dozens of downtown Ithaca shops will be presented with this year’s Special Youth Award!

The contest is organized by The Sophie Fund, which was established in 2016 in memory of Cornell University art student Sophie Hack MacLeod to support mental health initiatives aiding young people.

The 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest is sponsored by the GreenStar Natural Foods Market, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro and Spa.

Sophie’s passion for baking cupcakes inspired the launch of the contest in 2016. At the time of her death by suicide at age 23, while on a medical leave of absence from Cornell, Sophie was active in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene. According to her family, she hoped to open her own bakery after completing her Cornell degree.

To enter the cupcake contest, contestants are asked to bring their submissions to the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons from 10–11:30 a.m. on Saturday October 13. The winners will be announced and prizes awarded at a ceremony in the Pavilion later the same day at 3 p.m.

In conjunction with the contest, The Sophie Fund is again organizing a “Cupcake Button” fundraising campaign, with monies donated this year to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County.

Click here for all the information on contest procedures and rules, and to download a registration form.

It’s Cool to “Cool Down”

Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca has provided our community with accessible mental health care and social services for the past 50 years. Recently, F&CS added an additional focus to its work: education. This year, it launched a children’s reading project, distributing books related to mental health free of charge for use by young readers and caregivers alike.

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One of the books is Cool Down and Work Through Anger, by Cheri J. Meiners. It provides a simple story about productively expressing emotions, and includes resources for educators and social workers to guide children through difficult situations. David Shapiro, F&CS president and CEO, says that Cool Down is an example of how to “make mental health approachable,” one of the goals of F&CS’s reading project.

Shapiro believes that mental health education is especially critical in the age of school violence. When children, especially young boys, experience hurt, they “often respond with anger, and anger leads to violence,” he explains. Stories like Cool Down, he says, provide a vocabulary for dealing with hurt and pain in new, constructive ways. “It is our responsibility, as a community, to keep our schools safe,” he adds.

Another offering in the reading project is I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness, about the practice of mindfulness, by Susan Verde. Every page, full of reassuring phrases and beautiful illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds, allows the reader to find connection with nature, and with themselves. Shapiro notes that parents in high stress situations might find value in the book themselves as they read I Am Peace to their children. Education initiatives like the children’s reading project, he adds, can create a more proactive, involved, and mental health-conscious community.

—By Sophie Jones

Sophie Jones, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Cornell University majoring in psychology and minoring in visual studies. She skates on the Synchronized Skating Team and volunteers with the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity.

Join the Open House at Family and Children’s Service on Sunday, September 16 from 2–5 p.m. Clinical and direct service staff will introduce guests to therapy techniques and the values behind F&CS’s work. Festivities include a live performance by the Fall Creek Brass Band, catering by Gola Osteria, and a live raffle drawing for five fabulous Finger Lakes Experiences.

Click here to purchase tickets—$25 per person, children 12 and under admitted without charge.

College vs. Mental Health

Arriving on campus for a new academic year can be exhilarating—and intimidating. College represents an amazing opportunity to study and explore—and party. It is also a time of transition, which can elevate life stresses and exacerbate existing mental health conditions. Don’t take this lightly.

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If you are one of the students experiencing conditions like depression and anxiety at Cornell University, Ithaca College, or Tompkins Cortland Community College, you are not alone. Not at all. It is important that you recognize when you need help, and to seek help when you need it.

As the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law puts it, “Students who seek treatment are not ‘weak’ or ‘crazy.’ Therapy is a hopeful and affirming act of caring for yourself.”

Bazelon publishes a manual called Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights. The subtitle is “A guide for students who want to seek help for mental illness or emotional distress.”

In the introduction, the manual notes:

“If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, mood swings, sleep disturbances, delusions or hallucinations, or if you feel overwhelmed, immobilized, hopeless or irritable, there is treatment that can help. You may also benefit from therapy to address common issues such as body image or low self-esteem, to help with a crisis involving your relationship or family, or if you are in the middle of a transition, such as beginning a new school.”

Some eye-opening data about college mental health from the Bazelon manual:

Many college-age students suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Anxiety is the issue most often mentioned by college students who visited campus mental health services. Students also named depression as one of the top ten impediments to academic performance as well as stress, sleep difficulties, relationship and family difficulties.

In the 2016 National College Health Assessment, 38.2 percent of the 33,512 students surveyed reported they “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” during the past year, and 10.4 percent said that they had “seriously considered suicide” during the year.

More than 80 percent of all college freshman report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time—college women, even more (about 90 percent). In 2016, more than 19 percent of college students reported experiencing an anxiety disorder within the previous year. While anxiety disorders are common among individuals of all genders, women are twice as likely to have them as men.

Eating disorders affect 20 million women and 10 million men, with the highest rates occurring in college-age women. Ten percent of students reported experiencing an emotionally abusive relationship in the last school year.

It is not just college-age people—America at large is experiencing a serious mental health crisis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that 43.8 million American adults are living with mental illness in a given year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a 25.4 percent increase in the national suicide rate since 1999.

The mental health crisis hits close to home here in Ithaca.

At Cornell University, for example, the 2017 Cornell PULSE Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed.” Nearly 43 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions.

Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year.” About 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.

In an area known to have very harmful short- and long-term effects on mental health, 9.8 percent of Cornell undergraduate female respondents reported having been the victims of rape or attempted rape since enrolling at the university, according to the 2017 Cornell Survey of Sexual Assault and Related Misconduct.

Thus, guides like the Bazelon manual are worth a good read—you may discover a need for more mental health knowledge for yourself, or for a friend.

In a section entitled “Seeking Help,” questions are discussed such as:

What are the steps for choosing a therapist? Where do I go? On campus or off?

What will happen when I call to make an appointment?

What happens if I call, and they can’t see me for two, three or four weeks?

What to do if I am in crisis and need immediate help

What should I expect at my first visit? What’s the first session like?

What are the different types of therapy?

What happens if I don’t like my therapist?

Click here to download Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights

Click here for The Sophie Fund’s Resources page for more links on mental health issues