By Alixandra Rutnik on May 26, 2020
Four female creatives share their mental health stories with us
During my sophomore year of college, I watched my best friend struggle with extreme depression and anxiety and at the time I couldn’t understand what she was going through– I questioned how that kind of thing is even possible. Then during my senior year of college, debilitating anxiety hit me so hard out of nowhere and I finally understood how bad it can be, how real it all is, and how scary it feels to be mentally off-balance.
Mental Health needs to be openly discussed like ALL the time. It is a real issue and it requires patience. Anyone who has struggled with any type of mental disorder will most likely tell you that you can not get out of this headspace alone. We reached out to the creative community to see who was interested in sharing their mental health journey with us to honor Mental Health Awareness Month– their stories are moving, encouraging, and helping us to #breakthestigma surrounding our mental health.
SVP / Creative + Brand
Jr. Art Director + Creative
Second Story Media President
Student, Appalachian State University Business Advertising
When did you realize that your mental health was something that was important to you?
Amy Small: There have been two times (so far) in my life/career I've run into significant mental health challenges– one was about seven years ago when I was trying to get pregnant with my second child, and the other was just this past fall after my dad died. Those are both pretty serious life events, but they definitely weren't the sole cause of my anxiety and depression. I personally believe both were triggered (or maybe exacerbated?) by being overwhelmed and overworked in my job, which in turn magnified everything else. Both times it took me a while to get help.
The first time I was so uncomfortable with the idea that I didn't even tell my husband I was going to see a psychiatrist. I felt like I SHOULD have been able to handle everything I was feeling, and that I was failing somehow by needing help. I have a very Type-A perfectionist personality, and it was hard for me to accept that there was a challenge being thrown in my path that I couldn't seem to overcome.
The second time, this past fall, I was able to be more honest about it, although I likely should have started seeing someone and taking medication again earlier than I did. I thought I would be able to navigate the situation better, naively, because I had more experience with it after the last time (ha!). I didn't like the experience of coming off of the antidepressants when I finally did get pregnant years earlier. (The brain zaps as you decrease your dosage are not something I wanted to go through again.)
Of course, I wasn't any better prepared to deal with it the second time around than the first. My husband knew what was going on this time, but no one at work did until October when I took a long walk with my boss and told him I was cracking. It was one of the hardest conversations I'd ever had, mostly because of the fear surrounding it that I'd built up in my mind. My boss (the CEO of our agency) was incredibly understanding. Soon after that I started seeing a different psychiatrist and started a different medication that's been shown to have much fewer side effects. I've been taking that, plus doing intermittent talk therapy, for about seven months now. The stress of working from home with two kids for these last two months has made things tougher, but I do feel more stable overall, and like I'm better able to navigate my day-to-day life.
"I felt like I SHOULD have been able to handle everything I was feeling, and that I was failing somehow by needing help. I have a very Type-A perfectionist personality, and it was hard for me to accept that there was a challenge being thrown in my path that I couldn't seem to overcome."
Gabby Ulloa: Hi, I’m Gabby. Mental health has always been something very prominent throughout my life. I come from an amazing family and I had a wonderful childhood, but as I grew up, there was this ongoing sadness and fear inside me. I remember it became more prominent and difficult to control. I ended up being diagnosed with depression at a young age. It was something that I struggled with on and off throughout my adolescence.
My parents have always been my biggest supporters and they advocated for me a lot when I was younger because I didn’t really know what was happening to me. I don’t think it was something I embraced. I just grew to accept the diagnosis and live with the depression as best as I could at the time. It’s hard to really embrace something that causes you a lot of mental strain when you’re still very young and learning about yourself. It’s also hard when you still don’t really understand why it’s happening in the first place.
Mariajose Cuyan: Growing up with immigrant parents from Guatemala, mental health was never a topic of discussion. I was taught that if I was experiencing sadness, stress, or anxiety, I should just get over it and be grateful to have a roof over my head. As a result, I never felt comfortable talking to my friends– or anyone for that matter– when I was in a dark place. When you grow up without the confidence to open up to people who are closest to you, that sticks with you. This led me to develop the negative habit of letting my emotions fester in isolation, as well as eating disorders and problems with sleep. Unfortunately, it really wasn’t until much later in my life when I realized that this was not a journey that I had to go through on my own.
Izzy Koch: I realized my mental health was important when it started deteriorating. The classic "don't know what you've got till it's gone" example. At first, I was not willing to accept what was happening– I've always enjoyed being self-sufficient and when you start to realize you might need to work on your mental health you can't do it alone. You need people around you who can support and encourage you. I come from a family of immigrants and I think it's a common theme in that kind of culture that mental health's importance isn't fully understood or appreciated.
Did you have a breaking point where you knew you needed help and you needed to turn your life around?
Amy Small: Both times I did hit a breaking point, and it was this overwhelming feeling of not being me, of sadness, of inertia, of everything making me doubt myself and wanting to cry without warning. I didn't have the energy to be "on" all the time at work, which I need to be as a manager, or the interest to talk to friends and family (not even really wanting to make the effort to go out to dinner with my husband). I had even less patience than usual with my kids and I couldn’t get out of the thoughts in my own head to see situations objectively. It probably isn't the best or healthiest to have an external motivation for seeking help, but I think both times, I partially decided to get help because I didn't want to let the people around me down– I knew I wasn't being any good for them in the state I was in (this is probably where my Type-A-ness comes in, as well. I struggle when I don't meet my own expectations for myself, even if no one else is really expecting anything at all.)
I was also honestly tired of feeling all of these things SO heavily. In the more recent instance last fall, my new meditation practice also played a role in getting help. I started getting interested in meditation and mindfulness about two years ago. While I am far from the serious practitioner I aspire to be, it made me realize that I needed to take care of myself if I was going to be of value to anyone or anything else and that I needed to try to figure out what was going on rather than fight it. The medication has helped a ton. I need to do more talk therapy, but the EAP (employee assistance plan) from our insurance makes it really tough to find a good counselor, so that's something I'm still working on. Right now, I have more good days than bad. I can recognize when I'm having a bad one and talk myself through it a bit because I know it's just a dip and isn't going to last forever. That was a big step for me.
Gabby Ulloa: I did end up reaching a breaking point in my second year of college. I had been going through a period of depression, and then a few things happened that pushed me very close to the edge. I honestly felt like I was hitting rock bottom. I had become hopeless and I didn’t see a point in living anymore.
Fortunately, I have always been a person who is good at seeking out help when it is needed. If I wasn’t like that, I don’t really know where I would be today. The thing that motivated me to seek help was my family. I couldn’t stand the thought of how devastated they would be if they lost me. I knew that I had to seek help not only for myself but also for them. I feel so fortunate to have people who love me so much. It took me a while to get to a place where I felt mentally stable again. I think depression and mental illness isn’t really something that ever goes away. You just learn how to cope with it better as time goes on. I was also able to learn and understand how important it is to keep going in life because things do get better.
Mariajose Cuyan: I never had a single a-ha moment, but more of a series of troublesome periods that eventually made me say, “enough.” I probably hit the pinnacle of my depression and anxiety in college. Since I didn’t know how to cope with them, they caught up with me quickly whenever I experienced triggering episodes.
Depression and anxiety present differently in different people. When they show up in my life, it feels like bricks being pressed into my chest, like being unable to eat due to lack of appetite and feeling sleepless and in panic mode all the time. I like to personify depression and anxiety as a troublesome duo, relentless in their quest to become the object of your undivided attention at all times.
I didn't know how to cope with my issues, so I felt like my only step toward healing was to get a therapist. That’s what all the movies and shows tell you to do, but they don’t tell you how daunting it can be and how many hoops you have to jump through to get an in-network therapist that you actually connect with. It was a really hard process that took longer than necessary, so I began to search for help in some less traditional ways. I followed people on Instagram that were upfront about their struggles, as well as psychologists and healers offering their guidance. I sought out books and podcasts about understanding your feelings and began to learn things from them too. I also started opening up to friends more frankly about my feelings, investing in Talkspace therapy, and journaling nearly every day about my thoughts, which in itself is a form of therapy.
"I like to personify depression and anxiety as a troublesome duo, relentless in their quest to become the object of your undivided attention at all times."
I wouldn’t say I’m recovered because I’ve learned that the journey of enlightenment and healing is never linear or easy– it's a perpetual work in progress. To answer the question more succinctly– Am I better now than I was several years ago? For sure.
Izzy Koch: I had a breaking point when I realized I hadn't left my dorm in three weeks. That type of realization is pretty jarring. I wasn't going to class, I wasn't going out with my friends, I wasn’t doing anything. I was also hiding it from those who cared about me. Sometimes when you suffer from depression and/or anxiety you get a moment of clarity when you come out of a really bad episode, and that moment for me was what pushed me to go to a therapist immediately. When I got in that room I just started crying, it's so overwhelming to see the mess you're in, and to understand that you need to take steps to fix it. It's not just a one-time thing or a bad week, it's a real issue.
"I had a breaking point when I realized I hadn't left my dorm in three weeks. That type of realization is pretty jarring. I wasn't going to class, I wasn't going out with my friends, I wasn’t doing anything."
After the consultation appointment, I told everyone I could possibly tell about what was happening. It was difficult, like pulling a bandaid off, but I needed help and they couldn't read my mind. I'd say in the long run, being honest with those around me has made the biggest difference in how I cope when things get bad. Knowing you have a tribe there to help you will change how you experience mental health challenges.
Assuming that you have creative interests (after all, you do follow us on social media!)– what role do they play in your mental health?
Amy Small: So yes, I'm a writer by trade, and currently lead all of creative for my agency (I'm the SVP of Creative + Brand for Media Cause, a digital agency that works solely with nonprofits). I don't know how NOT to be creative. If my mind isn't crunching on a project or solving a problem at work, I'm doing a personal project, baking, or cleaning (ha!). I can't sit still, which is maybe part of why I'm prone to the spirals of anxiety and depression– inertia is SO uncomfortable for me that it just feeds on itself and grows into unnecessarily negative thoughts and feelings.
"I do believe that "creative" people may feel things more deeply than others. Our highs and lows are amplified, but both are essential for creation."
That said, I don't personally identify with the "tortured artist" archetype. From my perspective, yes— creativity comes from drawing on your personal experiences and emotions, but they don't always have to be "bad" ones. I have created many things that were sparked by hope, optimism, or gratitude. I wrote several joy-filled short children's books (which I never published, but that's a different story) when my kids were young (even though in retrospect, I actually think I struggled with PPD after my daughter was born and didn't know it). I'm reading Brad Montague's Becoming Better Grownups right now, and while he shares his personal struggles, his creativity also comes from a whole lot of wonder and optimism. So no, I don't believe the "tortured artist" path is everyone's path to creativity. I do believe that "creative" people may feel things more deeply than others. Our highs and lows are amplified, but both are essential for creation.
Gabby Ulloa: I think creativity is a great escape from the stresses of daily life. When you’re creating for yourself, you sometimes tend to get lost in the process. It depends on what I’m working on, but art does have a way of keeping me calmer. It also helps me to have an objective for a piece and work my way towards that final goal. There might be a hint of truth to the “tortured artist’s soul,” but I don’t find that to be the case for myself. I don’t really create out of sadness, I create for joy.
Everyone probably struggles with mental health from time to time, not specifically creatives. Working in a creative field has helped me and definitely affected me positively. It helps me to know there are a lot of like-minded people out there who can understand me better when I am struggling. However, sometimes being in a sadder state of mind can hinder my ability to find the motivation to create new things. In those cases, it helps to use resources like Pinterest, Behance, or even The One Club’s website and Instagram to try to get inspired again.
Being creative gives me a platform to express myself, but sometimes I struggle to do so out of fear of judgment from others. I need to learn to fear less when creating because maybe someone out there can relate to my work and what I’m going through too. Being creative definitely allows me more freedom to express myself and talk about things I am going through.
Mariajose Cuyan: I really don’t believe that creative types are inherently more susceptible to mental health struggles than others. Suffering doesn’t go hand in hand with creativity, it’s something that everyone deals with on different levels. As creative people, though, I believe we tend to be more open about our struggles because we choose to express ourselves through mediums like poetry, visuals, or even Instagram posts. We’re not the only troubled ones, we just express ourselves differently.
I’ve found that my mental health doesn’t drastically affect my performance at work, but instead it hinders my motivation to get started on something. I try my best to welcome creative projects during times of mental instability because they serve as a temporary distraction from whatever sadness I am feeling, and then, in turn, fuels me to keep doing things that make me happy.
Izzy Koch: I think creatives definitely struggle with mental health more frequently than others. The “tortured artist” archetype feels like something you have to be a part of as a creative. I've met very few creative people who are in a state of joy or calm the majority of the time. I'm sure it has to do with the fact that even though you try not to let it, your work has a tendency to define what others think of you in a very personal way. If others don't like your work it can feel like they don't like you, and that is incredibly hard to deal with. On the other hand, it's an important lesson!
Separating your inherent human value from what others think of your work is a skill I'm happy to work on every day– not only does it help my mental space, but also it creates a place where I can improve my work faster. Critique feels harsh but when given correctly it's all about helping your work be its best. I definitely feel that being in a creative field allows me to talk more openly about my mental health because it is so common. People understand and sympathize more than I think they would in other fields.
How does your workplace affect your mental state and your creativity?
Amy Small: My work life and my mental health are inextricably linked. When work is a little slow, or I have more admin or task-oriented things to get done than creative ones, I get antsy, demotivated, and depressed. When I am overwhelmed at work because I'm working on too many projects at once and don't feel like I have the resources, time, or support to complete them up to my standards (remember, I'm a perfectionist), I get anxious and reactive. There is a middle ground, but it's not always easy to find.
The leadership at my current agency, of which I'm proud to be a part, is incredibly understanding and flexible in terms of making sure everyone has what they need to take care of themselves. Mental health days are 100% allowed and encouraged. I don't know that I could say the same about any of the big agencies I've worked at in the past, though.
About seven years ago, when I had my first experience with depression, I was working with an amazing CD who became one of my best friends, and I was able to open up to him about my struggles– no one else at the agency knew what was going on. I don't think I could have asked for time off without being stigmatized or even worse, coddled. Taking work off my plate was NOT what I needed, but that's likely what would have happened, rather than being given the additional support to be successful and sane. I think that's why so many folks are afraid to ask for help. The narrative becomes "this is too much for her/him" rather than "the situation isn't setting her/him up for success," and it ends up reflecting negatively for a long time to come.
So many agency cultures still prioritize work over people, despite what they say. When an organization claims to care for its team but still expects 60 hour work weeks, there's a massive disconnect. To be fair, this isn't just in the advertising and marketing world. It's corporate culture as a whole.
Gabby Ulloa: I think how a workplace affects you mentally is dependent on the atmosphere of the place you are working at. The ideal workplace is one that would support me if I am struggling and allow me to take a break every once in a while. Mental health days should become more normalized for those who truly need the time to themselves to regroup. This could not only lead to a person performing better at work, but also it could lead to better work produced or a better working environment for others.
I really hope we can reach a point that asking for a mental health day isn’t something to be ashamed of– if personal mental health struggles are really interfering with work, it is important to talk to a manager or boss about it– to make them aware of the situation and let them know you will do your best in spite of the issues.
Mariajose Cuyan: Having worked at a large ad agency, I struggled most with staying motivated through a project from start to finish. In a fast-paced, long-hours work environment where I was getting opinions from several different parties at once, I found it hard to keep producing work that I was proud of. This then fed into this vicious cycle of imposter syndrome and feeling like I was letting my team down.
Mental health and self-care are ideas that everyone rallies behind when it’s convenient, but when it comes down to the time constraints, money, and major stakeholders that are inevitable in the ad industry, these ideas seem to take a backseat. What helped me find solace in low moments was finding spots in my day or week where I could practice self-care, checking in with my colleagues, and reminding myself that all tough days come to an end eventually. Whenever I found myself feeling unmotivated or stressed, I would step away, take a long walk, and find someone to talk to about anything unrelated to work. These are small steps, but they add up and truly help, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment.
Izzy Koch: I have two different workplaces, but I'd say both are very accepting of mental health days or other mental health allowances. We have a set number of mental health days in both workplaces, but there is a strong culture of adaptations to fit whatever situation you may be in. We openly chat in both organizations about communicating needs effectively, so if your mental health is impacting your job your team has your back. Obviously this is all based around the idea that your coworkers are your team, not just your competition.
Social media has become a great platform for pushing back against the stigma of seeking mental wellness– do you find yourself engaging in the online conversation?
Amy Small: YES! I follow several organizations who work heavily in the mental health space, and I try to contribute to the conversation in a positive, supportive way, as well. Liking, sharing, creating my own content, being honest about things (mostly related to parenting struggles and realities).
The only way to destigmatize mental health is to talk about it, even if it's uncomfortable. Being honest, though– this email interview will be the first time I've publically shared that I'm seeing a therapist or taking medication. That part of my journey is not something I've talked about on social media yet. One big reason why is my mom. While she's not on LinkedIn, she does follow me on Instagram. She knows the situation, but to her there's still a stigma around it. She asks me "are you still taking those PILLS?" every once in a while, and honestly, it's uncomfortable. I know it's generational, but it's a barrier that I haven't quite overcome yet.
Gabby Ulloa: Unfortunately, I do not find myself partaking in the online conversation of mental health and mental wellness. This is mostly out of fear of not being received well. It’s a dumb fear, but once I get over it, I will have something important to contribute to the conversation. Although a fully connected world can have its negatives, there are more positives than anything else. The ability to connect with other people on mutual experiences regardless of location helps you realize that mental health is a universal issue that people face. Social media can definitely help you feel less isolated and alone with what you are going through.
Mariajose Cuyan: I think this new digital mental health revolution is a godsend and something I thoroughly encourage and am excited about. People posting about their struggles online is a solid first step to spreading awareness and connecting with others on a more personal level. A single post that comes from a place of honesty and empathy has the potential to reach others who need help and that’s progress.
One of the negatives of living in this extremely connected age, however, is that we tend to forget that most people only share online the parts of themselves that they want people to see– the happy, pretty, exciting parts. When you’re already in a difficult mental space, it’s hard not to compare your life to someone else’s in an unhealthy way.
"A single post that comes from a place of honesty and empathy has the potential to reach others who need help and that’s progress."
Izzy Koch: I think what social media is doing is great for creating awareness, but I don't usually engage. I don't think all the self-care posts and discussions on wellness through social media are that helpful to those struggling at the current moment. They make me feel like I'm doing self-care wrong (which is insane), and also like I might need to get several more therapists because mine didn't say what the one on Instagram said. I think when you are going through mental health issues it's not helpful to watch a beautiful person take a bath, it's more helpful to reach out to someone who can show up at your door with some tea. Not to disparage the beautiful people taking baths, or all the content that is very real and raw, but nothing makes up for human hugs. I think social media is bound to create comparison, not immediately but eventually. The best thing for me to do is to limit my time on it to an hour a day (which I hardly ever stick to but at least I'm aware of it!).
In what ways do you advocate for others to address their own mental health?
Amy Small: In the last few months at work, since we've all been remote, I've taken on the role of mom/therapist for a lot of folks at my agency. We talk often, and not just about work things. I started virtual "Empathy and Space" sessions, where anyone who wants to join is welcome– we each pledge at the beginning to create a safe space for all of our emotions, and open up the room, to be honest and raw with each other with no judgment or consequence. It's been a wonderful experience.
Gabby Ulloa: It’s important to ask other people how they’re really doing in life. It’s important to check up on friends too and make sure the people you care about are doing well. I want people to know that it’s okay to talk about mental health. There should be no stigma around it. Talking about it does not make you weaker in any way and it is not something to be ashamed of at all. I am not ashamed to educate other people if the time or situation demands it. Mental health is something that everyone should be educated about.
Even if you don’t personally struggle with mental health issues, you might know someone that does, and having that knowledge will help you help them. If someone tells you to “suck it up” when you are struggling mentally, it’s important to help them understand why that is an inappropriate and incorrect way of thinking. If that doesn’t work, then it’s best to step away from the situation and person because you really don’t need that kind of negativity. There are plenty of people out there who understand and will talk about mental health.
"If someone tells you to “suck it up” when you are struggling mentally, it’s important to help them understand why that is an inappropriate and incorrect way of thinking. "
Mariajose Cuyan: I think by being honest about my own struggles via social media or in conversation that I can encourage people to think a little more deeply about themselves and their own mental health journey. I try to treat myself as an open book, so if people wish to confide in me about their struggles and want help then I will surely do my best to help however I can. My goal as I move forward in my life and in my career is to normalize the prioritization of mental health for everyone, no matter their socioeconomic background.
As for anyone stigmatizing therapy, I would tell that person, “I’m glad you’re in a place where you can live happily and calmly, but a lot of people come from different backgrounds, different upbringings, and different brain configurations that all lead to different mental struggles. These struggles are real and if not addressed can consume people, making them feel so incredibly hurt that nothing else seems to help. Therapy isn’t just for crazy people, it’s for everyone, and I hope you can empathize with that one day.”
"Therapy isn’t just for crazy people, it’s for everyone, and I hope you can empathize with that one day.”
Izzy Koch: I think my most used phrase with friends is "have you thought of doing therapy?" If people see you being open about your journey and what you've been through, it encourages them to know that they are not unique in their situation. Mental illness isolates you so completely, it's important to actively show others they aren't alone.
A lot of people I care a great deal about think only crazy people need therapy, and that's fine. It’s not my job to push people into things, I just gently remind them that it is ok for people to struggle. Giving people coping skills outside of therapy is important. It might not be comfortable for them to go speak to a stranger, but meditation and journaling are both wonderful and unobtrusive. If you hate what you wrote, rip it up and throw it away! I find people are wary of others taking control of their mental space, so activities they can keep under their control are important.
"Mental illness isolates you so completely, it's important to actively show others they aren't alone.”
What's the single most important thing that you've learned on your own journey that you think might be helpful to others who are deeply struggling?
Amy Small: Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness– it's a sign of strength.
Gabby Ulloa: The most important thing I’ve learned is to keep going even when life seems hopeless or terrible– it always has a way of getting better. Also, never be afraid to ask someone for help if you need it.
Mariajose Cuyan: If there is anything in life that you should invest in, it’s building your support system. Who are the people you can trust to answer your call and listen? What are the things in your life that give you relief and happiness? This foundation will give you the tools to work through your feelings and heal. This is something I neglected to foster in my life for so long, but being able to rely on these basic things today has made a huge difference in my life.
Izzy Koch: It's strong to ask for help– you aren't alone.
Ending with some positive vibes here– what's it like to feel mentally at peace, if only for a moment?
Amy Small: Peace is actually the perfect word. Calm. Settled. On Mother's Day, I felt at ease for 75% of the day. I was able to enjoy small moments throughout the day without worrying about the wall of meetings that were going to hit me at 9:30 on Monday morning. I wasn't sad or disappointed by not being able to be with my own mom, but grateful we had a lovely Skype tea party together.
Mindfulness is HARD to achieve, and for me, it's incredibly fleeting. But those are the moments I can see how all of this work to untangle myself is paying off. I am pretty sure I have a ways to go, and a whole cavern of unresolved issues I haven't even addressed yet. I also feel like I am better armed now to work through them (with the help of medication, meditation, and a professional) whenever that happens.
Gabby Ulloa: To feel mentally at peace is honestly an amazing thing. Even if it is only for a moment, it’s important to acknowledge the time when you are mentally at ease because it can help you to realize that reaching a place of calmness is possible and can be possible again.
Mariajose Cuyan: To be mentally at peace is to be completely present in the moment– no thoughts about the past, no thoughts about the future, just enjoying whatever you are doing in that moment. That could be listening to your favorite album, trying out a new Bon Appetit recipe, or going on a quick jaunt around your neighborhood.
Izzy Koch: The moment while reading a book when you realize you have no idea what's been happening around you– the focus on what's right in front of you with no concern for what happened in the past or what will happen in the future– it's freeing to be content.
Here are a few resources to check out: