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This Cartoonist Is Drawing Guides To Help Adolescents Talk About Mental Health

Excpert from Lets Talk About It
Cara Bean
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Center For Center for Cartoon Studies

The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction has been working on creating comics that present complicated information in clear and accessible ways. Last year, they put out a graphic guide to Democracy and Government. Now they've collaborated with a mental health organization in Ohio and with Mass. cartoonist Cara Bean to produce a new comic called Let's Talk About It, a graphic guide to mental health.

It's available for free on the Internet and it will be handed out to every student in Stark County, Ohio.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with cartoonist Cara Bean about the project. Their interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What kinds of things are covered in this comic?

Cara Bean: The comic is actually a pretty jam-packed 24 pages. It covers stress and how it affects us and our brains and coping mechanisms to deal of stress. And then we get in to sleep and mindfulness, relationships. And then we talk a little bit about anxiety and depression.

We also dig into crisis and suicide and addiction. So there's a lot in this little comic, a lot of topics explored.

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Yes, a lot of serious issues. What got you interested in this project to begin with?

For 13 years, I was a high school art teacher in Lexington, Mass., and mental health topics would come up in the art room all the time. My background is in the fine arts, so any time there was a workshop or training about mental health issues, I would always sign up.

I was also making my own comics and doing cartooning. I'm just an avid doodler. So whenever I would take notes, I would draw the things that I was learning. I started posting them, just on Facebook or my blog and people really responded to the drawings.

I made a little zine or comic called Snakepit – which is on my website – but it's comic for adults who work with children, or parents, to help them talk about depression and suicide. People really wanted copies of that and started sharing it. And because I'm buddies with the Center for Cartoon Studies, when they were approached by Stark County, James Sturm, reach out to me and we decided to make this comic together.

James Sturm, we should say, pretty much the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, right?

Yes, and Michelle Ollie – they're both so wonderful. I had a little residency there and I was working on mental health comics, so they were very aware of what I was doing. And they were like, ‘Hey, Cara, do you think you can fit this in?’ And so we began working on it together. And we just recently released it, so it's really exciting.

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"What's beautiful about a comic is you can go one panel at a time and present one concept at a time. It's just a little easier to digest." - Cara Bean, cartoonist

What are some of the advantages, do you think, that comics have in presenting this kind of serious information, especially for young people?

I think you can read them at your own pace. And a lot of times, if you're struggling with depression or anxiety, reading can be stressful and difficult if you get a big chunk of text, or even webpages. I've been doing a lot of research, and if it's too busy and too dense, you can't focus.

What's beautiful about a comic is you can go one panel at a time and present one concept at a time. It's just a little easier to digest. And then you also have the beautiful visual metaphors that you can use to describe invisible things like anxiety and depression and stress.

I love that idea that you can go back and read a specific panel. It's like a movie, but it's the kind of movie where you can just automatically freeze a frame, so it's right there for you. You can go back to it doesn't slip by, and it doesn't have that that problem of a deep novel, where there is a lot of that text you’re talking about.

Was there any kind of pushback or any concern on your part that cartooning might be perceived as too whimsical or maybe not serious enough a genre to depict issues regarding mental illness?

It was never an issue for me, because what's beautiful is we partnered with all of these specialists. So I was able to filter the research through my creative hand and Stark County, edited it and looked it over. We had school counselors read it and we had other cartoonists read it. There were so many people who gave beautiful feedback, but I was also able to just be the weirdo that I am and try things, and have people be like, ‘I don’t like that!’ or ‘That’s kind of fun!’

Cartoonist Cara Bean with a duck on an easel
Credit Cara Bean, courtesy
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Cartoonist Cara Bean has a new project she developed around adolescent mental health through the Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.

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Let’s talk about some of the specifics of the comic itself. All the characters in the comic are drawn as bunny rabbits. Why did you choose that particular animal?

That's a good question. I wanted to do a rabbit because the comic is called Let's Talk About It, but really, what I want people to do, is listen about it, too. Rabbits have big ears, and if you look through the comic, the ears are expressive in a lot of the panels.

We need to listen to each other. When you talk to someone, you want to have someone receptive that's willing to really listen to what's going on with you and help you if you really need help.

And then also: rabbits are attentive and maybe a little anxious for me as an animal, so they are like very alert. And I like drawing rabbits.

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There’s a great legacy there, too. I mean, you're talking about some of the most classic animals in animation of all time: Bugs Bunny, and then thinking about the Matt Groening Life in Hell rabbits. There's a long history here.

Now, the other thing in the comic that's really interesting is the concept of Stigma. It’s drawn as a kind of a big, red devil monster. Is that stigma about people with mental illness in some ways as dangerous as the condition of mental illness itself?

Definitely. Yeah. It’s that feeling of not being able to talk about it. And the point of the comic is to make that monster disappear and make it OK to discuss these topics, just like if you broke your leg, you would go to the hospital; you would go to the doctor. You should feel just as comfortable getting help if there's something going on in your mind, in your brain.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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