Designers Dani Balenson and Indhira Rojas interviewed each other about redefining the language of mental health, growing into their illnesses and developing communities around their work.
If it’s true that creativity takes courage, adding mental illness to that equation certainly doesn’t make it easier. But that hasn’t stopped Indhira Rojas or Dani Balenson from accepting the mantle of mental health role models while holding down full-time jobs and maintaining strong relationships with their friends, their families, and themselves.
Upon graduating in 2013, Balenson pursued her thesis project, Living With, a T-shirt campaign created to drive awareness of stigmatized mental health issues, before moving on to design at Vox Media and now Intercom in the Bay Area. Around the same time, Rojas quit her job at Medium to open her own studio, now called Anagraph. A year after that, she launched Anxy, a biannual magazine that speaks openly and honestly about mental illness, filling a need for readers hungry for the kind of discussion that more academic psychology journals just aren’t suited for.
While the two subjects of our very first double interview grew up in different kinds of families and in different parts of the world, when it came to seeking treatment for mental illness they were fortunate to be raised in a remarkably stigma-free environment. Perhaps that’s one reason why Rojas and Balenson have become outspoken mental health advocates. Growing up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Rojas had parents who sought to incorporate counseling into their family dynamic, even if doing so was unusual to most Dominicans; and in Baltimore, Balenson started seeing a therapist at age nine at the behest of her family.
Now both live in San Francisco, and are among a handful of professional creatives who have turned a lifelong battle with mental health into fruitful work, shining a spotlight on their struggles in the process and starting a vibrant, new, no-judgment conversation that they welcome all to join.
Despite their shared experiences and proximity to one another, Rojas and Balenson had never met. So after making an introduction, we sat them down together with a few talking points and a recorder. They spoke for over an hour about redefining the language of mental health, growing into their illnesses and developing communities around their work, and knowing when to quit and how to be okay with that – how to be more than okay with that.
Indhira Rojas: Alright. Take three. From the top. This is Indi.
Dani Balenson: And Dani.
IR: And we’re here to talk about our career paths and experience with mental health. What was your perception of mental health growing up? When did you become aware of your diagnosis?
DB: When I was in fifth grade the guidance counselor called me in to her office and my parents were both sitting there. I was very confused, because they divorced two years earlier. They sat me down, and the guidance counselor turned to me very seriously and said, “You have ADHD.”
DB: And I was like, “Okay, what’s that? That sounds fun.” I remember not really knowing what was going on. I learned a lot about ADHD after, especially based on the way people treated me. They also diagnosed my sister, and we were both placed on medication around the same time. My parents had very different views on medication in terms of whether we should be on it, and what kind, and whether it was really working. It was a constant battle between them.
I did know that being on medication helped me. I was able to sit still. I was able to listen. I was able to think clearly and not feel broken into a thousand pieces, but it still felt like a bad thing because they were fighting about it so much.
My grandfather, who was a psychologist, encouraged me to step back from the situation. To leave myself for a second and think about how they’re feeling and what they’re struggling with. How mom is acting this way because maybe she’s really sad right now; maybe she’s depressed. Being able to step back from my own life and look at theirs made me very aware of my mental health in relation to theirs. It definitely runs in my family. What was your experience like?
IR: The concept of mental health and the discussion of psychology in the Dominican Republic, especially while I was growing up, was not common. People in the D.R. tend to be very protective about their feelings, and there’s the perception that if you talk to a therapist there’s something wrong with you. And because the D.R. is an island, we tend to be ten years behind on everything, including psychology. So even the knowledge we have of psychology is a bit limited. Mental health was not something we talked about growing up. My childhood experience was very confusing for me. I always felt there was something wrong with me because of my experience with sexual abuse at an early age.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered that what had happened to me was not okay. Through sex ed in elementary school, I put two and two together and realized that was not an experience a person should have had at that age. All of that made me feel like something was wrong. I carried that feeling all through my teenage years. I was too ashamed to talk to anyone about it.
It wasn’t until I got to Parsons that I started to understand more about it. When you come in as an international student, Parsons does this thing that’s pretty cool. They assume you’re in this transitional period, which can be very stressful for people, so they offer students free counseling. I think that was the one thing that shifted my whole life trajectory.
I saw this therapist for the two years I was at Parsons, and even after I graduated. Eventually, when I moved to California, she helped me transition to someone local. That was when I got officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety and PTSD. They’re both very common diagnoses for people who’ve suffered sexual abuse and trauma at an early age.
DB: So the conversation you had is one you had to actively seek out.
IR: Yeah, and it’s funny because I tried talking to someone about it before at this church I used to go to when I was young. They told me to ask God to forgive that person, and to be compassionate towards them, and to not discuss it any further, which is really bad advice. For a while after that, I didn’t feel like it was something that I should talk about. By the time I met the counselor at Parsons, I was bursting at the seams.
DB: How did it impact your work as a student at the time?
IR: Work has been a coping mechanism for me. Even though I felt really unstable, being busy helped me feel stable. The stimulation of being in a new city was good too. It helped me feel distracted. New York is the best city to be distracted in. What about your experience with mental health and your journey dealing with your diagnosis? How did your family history influence your work? And how did Living With come about?
DB: I was always thinking about why I was on medication and my friends weren’t. When I got diagnosed, I wasn’t bursting at the seams; I was just kind of living with it. A lot of the art I made throughout middle school and high school was about that. Later, for my degree project in college, I naturally gravitated to mental health because I was still on medication at the time and thinking a lot about it.
Living With started as an assessment of language. When I was diagnosed I was told that something was wrong with me and I needed to be fixed. But as I grew up and incorporated my disorder into my life and lived with it, I truly felt like I wasn’t broken; I just did things differently. And I felt very proud of that rather than beaten down – proud that I got up every day and was still functioning. I wanted to see how I could help other people feel as proud of themselves as I felt.
At the time, I hadn’t seen anybody in the mental health world talk about that aspect. They were always trying to offer support, but the language about mental illness is not good. It’s not positive. It’s not empowering. One way that I wanted to address that was with emotionally impacted design. Jonathan Chapman wrote a book called Emotionally Durable Design that I referenced a lot. Basically, when you call something a disorder, a disease, or an illness, it prevents it from being a facet of life, and instead it becomes something you’re trying to get rid of quickly or shove away.
I wanted to do T-shirts specifically because they’re a powerful and immediate way for you to show what you’re proud of. I started to think about how I could do that for mental health. But I didn’t want to make a shirt that just said “I have depression,” because that’s so insensitive and so not the point. The point isn’t that you have it; the point is that you get up every day and live with it.
I used patterns to visualize it because a pattern can be abstract. A person can relate to it without having to tell people what it’s about if they don’t want to. So I picked four of the most common disorders in the country at the time, which were OCD, ADHD, depression, and bipolar, and made patterns based off those.
Originally, I put up posters around campus saying, “Hey, if you have any of these disorders come talk to me. I’d love to know your experience.” And nobody answered, because nobody wants to talk about it with some random girl doing her degree project about it. So I turned to the internet and I found that Tumblr was a really great place for people to be honest because it’s so anonymous. People just spilled their hearts out. They were very raw and real, and I designed the patterns to show the emotional balance of those feelings.
A teacher let me use his studio to screen print the first 100 shirts. I did the packaging. I made a really rough business model. I did everything in school except for the website. I did that after school, and it took almost as much time as the whole thesis itself.
IR: How long did the project last? I know that life has led you to close it down. What was that process like?
DB: The project lasted for about two years. We sold 600 shirts and donated $1,200 to [mental health nonprofit] Active Minds. I feel like in those two years I learned enough for six lifetimes. But I simply could not do everything. I had just moved to New York and started a new job. I was in a new relationship, and I wanted to hang out with my friends. There was so much that I wanted to do, and I just couldn’t do it all.
For a while I thought I could, because everything was going so great. Living With was taking off. I was speaking at conferences. People were reaching out about collaborations. But I didn’t really know what goes into running a business. I just blindly leapt in. And then I fainted on the subway.
DB: I was going to work one day, and I started worrying about taxes. Did I send that form in? Where would I even get the form? Is there a form? Or is it online? I genuinely just knew there was something I needed to do and I had no idea how to do it. I was on the subway and all of the sound around me started to mush together, and it got really hot and fuzzy, and the next thing I know is I’m on the floor.
Everybody talks about how New York is very big and scary, but if you faint on the subway just once, you’ll feel like you have friends wherever you go. All the people around me were trying to help me up. It was comforting to know that people cared, but I recognized that I needed to stop what I was doing because it was bad for me.
IR: What was the process like of making that decision to slow down?
DB: It was really hard. I loved the project and I’d given it my all for two years. I had people that really believed in it. It was a team of three at that point. There was so much that I wanted to explore as a designer, and there was so much that I wanted to do with my career, and I still needed to pay rent. I wanted to come back to it when I could do it right. And realizing that I couldn’t do it right, right then, was really hard. But I had to step back and see beyond the moment. So I slowly shut things down. And every time you tell somebody that you’re shutting something down, they’re like, “Why? What’s wrong?” And nothing’s wrong; I just can’t do it right now.
IR: When you’re very aware of your mental health, you start going to the edge and then you realize you’ve crossed it and need to take a leap back. It reminds me of a time when I had to shut things down. I was running a studio a few years back. I was also teaching and running a coworking space in the Dominican Republic with a few friends. I literally didn’t have time for anything. But when you want to create impact, it feels like the sacrifice and the hard hours are all worthwhile. And then you faint in the subway and you remember that you’re human.
DB: It felt very strange promoting mental health and taking care of yourself when I couldn’t even do it for me.
IR: What are your feelings about the project today?
DB: It’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m definitely going to come back to it when I have the resources and the know-how.
IR: Can you tell me about the community you developed around it? What did you take away from hearing people’s stories? What impacted you the most?
DB: The audience was mixed. When Living With first got press, a lot of people said, “You’re just a designer lining your pockets off of other people’s struggles.” That’s not how I felt at all, but I could see where they were coming from. But for the audience it was meant to resonate with, it resonated really well. I got emails from people asking me to make more shirts for other disorders. I got one email from a girl that made it all worth it. She said, “I got one of your shirts at an Active Minds Conference [the largest conference about students and mental health], and I just want you to know that when I wear it, I’m so happy to be standing.”
IR: Fast forward to today. You told me you have the best job of your life right now. How has that impacted your mental health?
DB: I truly love the job I have right now. I’m a brand designer at Intercom. What really sold me on the company is that it’s all human-based. It’s about making a human-interaction experience with technology not suck. I feel incredibly lucky. It still feels very surreal, to be honest. Feeling fulfilled by what you do for eight-plus hours a day frees your brain up in your spare time, too.
Before this, I was sad at work and not very inspired, and I would go home at night with a sense of dissatisfaction. I would have to force myself to be creative and do all these side projects. Now I can come home and do that, but it comes from a place of fun. I also have time now to figure out who I am outside of design. That’s the really good part. But the underlying truth is that I still struggle every day with mental health. When I moved to New York after graduation I stopped taking my medication. So for my entire career I’ve been figuring out how I can be as professional as possible and still get up and do all the things I need to do every day on my own. It’s been hard. I pick at my nails constantly. I’m always picking my fingers. They’re always fidgeting. I’m very aware that this table is glass.
IR: Now that you’re not doing your project, how do you perceive the mental health community and the conversation around mental health? Does that wider perspective give you a different sense of it all?
DB: I see a lot of artists who’ve never spoken out about mental health before, but are now doing commercial work for, say, a mental health foundation. I think it’s important to have the conversation out there anywhere, but the most important work being done isn’t necessarily this work.
IR: Do you believe, like, mental health is kind of trendy now?
DB: It’s trendy in the sense that when people care about something other people will capitalize on it. Mental health has always been there. Artists and designers have been creating work about mental health for as long as people could feel things, which has been always.
IR: I think we may have the language now to talk about it more openly, and the understanding as a community. But when I think about mental health being trendy, I wonder if that comes as a detriment to those of us who have been having this conversation for a long while now.
DB: It’s not really related to design, but one thing I think about a lot in terms of mental health being a trend is memes. Memes are super impactful because they’re relatable. You see them and you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s so funny. I totally do that thing.” For example, there’s this one account on Twitter called @sosadtoday.
IR: I love her.
DB: I think it’s great and it’s very funny, but I worry that it fetishizes unhealthy behavior. There’s one I saw the other day that said “Existing is inconvenient.” To somebody who really, truly believes that, yes: It’s good to know that it’s out there. But it’s also kind of making a joke out of it.
IR: For me, when you’ve been struggling with PTSD and generalized anxiety for your whole life, you get to a point where you need to make fun of it to be able to relax around it. I follow @sosadtoday, and when she writes certain things I’m like, “You just read my mind.” I recognize that I have a certain level of understanding of my own trauma experiences, and I’m very aware of it, which gives me the ability to read something like that and be able to separate myself from it, see the humor in it, and move on.
DB: I think that being in a place where I’m okay with myself and how I work, I’m able to laugh at things, but it just worries me deep down somewhere. Like it’s almost become cool to be sarcastic about problems you have. It’s creating more stigma rather than reducing it.
IR: Do you think it at least creates awareness, or that it’s changing the conversation?
DB: I don’t know if it changes the conversation as much as it allows people to label themselves. When you retweet something from this Twitter account, it’s on your profile so it becomes part of your identity. In terms of personal branding, is it cool to be sad?
IR: This is a good segue into Anxy, because a lot of people ask me why Anxy needs to be beautiful. I feel like it’s the same question: “Is it cool to be sad?”
DB: But it being beautiful made me want to read it. You clearly thought about it. You have an understanding of the medium and the stories. Can you talk about what it took to make this magazine?
IR: When I was first thinking about Anxy, I wasn’t even thinking about the mental health industry. I couldn’t find any mental health content that I could relate to. There’s psychology content, but I can’t look at it from a design point of view. It just doesn’t make me want to read it. Then you have your articles about “How to be happy in ten days.” You know what? I don’t want to be happy in ten days. I want to understand why I’m sad and why that’s okay.
When we’re feeling anxious and we’re dealing with it, sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is go through that experience so you can participate in some kind of healing process, if that’s possible for you. But we try so hard to escape that. “I can’t be sad. I can’t be depressed. I can’t feel these negative things because that means that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m broken. Why can’t I get it together when all these other people have it together?” Then you look closer, and to me no one has it together.
DB: No one. Literally.
IR: I wanted Anxy to be a place where we could tell those authentic stories and be accepting of that state of being. Why can’t that be beautiful? Why can’t you make it the most pleasant experience you can have within the constraints you’re given? As I was flipping through it, what really struck me is that you pull from collaborators from all over the world – illustrators, writers, photographers.
IR: I really love this phrase: What’s intimately personal is universal. I’m from the Dominican Republic, and I’m battling with all these things that my American friends and other friends from abroad are battling with too. Even though the challenges of mental health are influenced by specific social and cultural contexts, they’re also universal.
DB: You mentioned you’re a workaholic. How have you been able to fit Anxy into a healthy working schedule?
IR: It’s definitely been difficult. I think it’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. What has helped me was making the decision to remain independent. So it’s been about incorporating the Anxy work into my freelance work and trying to structure it so that a few months of the year we’re working on Anxy and the rest we’re working on client work. That sounds great in theory, but in practice what happens is the client work gets more intense at the same time the magazine needs to be designed, and the whole schedule gets out of control.
DB: So do you work on both client work and Anxy every day? Or do you silo days? What does that look like?
IR: Now that I’ve been able to run my studio along with a junior designer, senior designer, and a project manager, I can oversee client work and I can delegate, say, a design assignment to my team if I need space to problem solve with Anxy. That said, when we’re closing the magazine, it’s the heaviest time. But I try to give myself a break, so if I worked a little too hard then I try to do some selfcare. My ideal scenario is one in which Anxy is financially sustainable enough to run at the same time and take up as much space as client work.
It hasn’t worked perfectly yet, but as time passes we get better at knowing what we need to know about things like how long shipping takes. There’s so much about running a small business that they don’t teach you in school.
DB: There’s so much – like taxes.
IR: Accounting. Bookkeeping. [Laughs] It’s a lot. But you know, because I’ve tried and failed and tried and failed, I’m hoping that this time I’ve learned enough through trial and error to make it work.
DB: You can’t do it all.
IR: You’re gonna end up fainting in the subway. What I’ve learned is that this is never going to end. Every time I cross something off, ten more things come up. It’s up to me to say: This is my to-do list, and everything else is going to have to wait.
DB: After all the conversations you’ve had with writers and designers and photographers while making Anxy, how has hearing all of their stories and their experiences impacted your own?
IR: It’s been very humbling. Because we’re working on Anxy, the conversation starts about ten degrees deeper. Sometimes we receive emails, whether it’s from readers or potential contributors, where they’re telling us their life story. It’s raw and difficult, and it’s the story of survival. To me it really just validates this idea that these stories are out there, that people are having these experiences, and, to Anxy’s mission, that we’re not alone in this.
DB: As a designer, how do you feel about the role that mental health plays in your everyday life?
IR: I’m thankful that I found design, because part of the process of healing and making sense of it all is by expressing yourself and making things.
DB: You have the skills to get out what’s inside of you.
IR: I also love the fact that as a designer, I’m very attuned to other people’s needs. It feeds into the way that I’ve adapted to my trauma response. It makes me a better designer, but it also means I get to use some of my coping mechanisms as a tool for my work. It’s like these coping skills are superpowers.
DB: That’s so interesting. That’s how I feel as well. The things that are good for my own mental health are things I have to do for my job, like working with my hands, or making lots of lists, or being very detail-oriented. Those are things that come out of my ADHD: my need to double-check things to make sure that I did them right, because otherwise I know I did them wrong.
IR: What do you think is next for mental health when it comes to changing the conversation? Where do you think we are?
DB: The fact that we’re having this conversation is a benchmark. The conversation needs to keep happening. Even if it’s just on social media, to know that there are other people thinking about the discrepancy between a logical situation and an emotional reaction, that’s really powerful.
People sometimes ask me about when this conversation will become normalized, and what would happen then. I have a hard time with that. What I would like is for it to be acknowledged as part of our landscape of being human. I would have wanted that earlier on, when I was a teenager and in my earlier years.
IR: If we could acknowledge that this experience is happening to young people, and we made it part of our educational programs, that, to me, would be a benchmark. That would mean that mental health has gone fully mainstream. But to me, that’s not about becoming normal.
DB: Right. I hate that word. I really do.
IR: It’s more about creating new social norms, where we check our mental health just like we check our teeth when we go to the dentist.
DB: I think about being able to take a mental health day the same way you would take a sick day. Sometimes you can’t get out of bed if you have the flu, and sometimes you can’t get out of bed if you’re really, really low. It’s interesting, because it’s something that you can’t see. You can see your teeth and you can see your body. But you can’t see what’s up here, even if you can feel it. Another big thing would be changing the language we use to talk about mental health. Living With was based off of the experience of being told that something is wrong with you when there’s really nothing wrong with you. It’s just you’re living with this thing that other people might not be living with. It’s a part of who you are, and you’re not broken for it, or less normal.
IR: And there’s a spectrum. Some of us have more trauma than others.
DB: How do you feel about how it’s handled in the professional world, where people who experience those things later in life deal with the fallout?
IR: I was on a panel the other day and someone was talking about Facebook. They have on-site therapists.
DB: I would never want to see a therapist at work.
IR: I don’t either. A lot of companies now are offering that as an alternative to coaching, because all work is inter-personal. You know, someone’s going to talk to you in a way or do something that’s a trigger, and our work is affected by that. If you’re in a very toxic environment, that might be happening a lot, so talking it out with a mental health professional makes sense to me. But it’s also kind of weird, because when I think of all my history with trauma it has nothing to do with work, and it was a really long time ago, and I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel talking about that with someone who is being paid by my employer. But it’s interesting that companies are able to go that far in terms of supporting you, and even hiring staff for it.
DB: Bringing in self-care to the workplace is a benchmark for sure. I know a lot of companies have better mental health packages now by covering therapy or doing wellness weeks. Anything that helps people think about themselves and their brain in an environment where they’re normally just told to act is a good thing.
IR: My last question is about advice for what people should or shouldn’t say when you bring up mental health. A lot of advice, especially for young people, is to talk to someone you trust. But how do you start that conversation?
DB: I am not a medical professional; let me just say that. But what’s made an impact for me in the past year has been other people sharing their stories. It makes me feel like I can talk about what I feel. People who have an audience shouldn’t be afraid to be like, “Hey, by the way, I’m also a real person.” I know celebrities have done that. The more that people do that, the more people will come to understand that it’s okay to not feel good. It doesn’t mean I’m bad. It doesn’t mean that I’m never going to succeed. It just means that I don’t feel right, right now, and I need to address that. I think the worst thing you can do is just not address it.
IR: I think that’s great advice. When I think about the first time I went to the therapist at Parsons, I remember crying for the whole session and basically screaming at her.
DB: Your first session?
IR: Yeah, for a whole hour. I just needed help so badly. I wish I had sought it out sooner. If someone feels like they need to talk to someone, I prefer that they talk to a professional rather than a friend. They could be a really good friend, but if someone says the wrong thing at the wrong time, it might derail what you need to do next.
DB: I’ve said this to a friend before, but I’m almost grateful that my parents’ divorce really messed my life up, because I was able to see that all humans, no matter who they are, are just humans. Your parents aren’t just your parents; they’re regular people. When you’re younger and you realize nobody’s perfect, it’s a really big deal. That’s not advice, but I wish more young people realized that and didn’t give themselves such a hard time. Alright. You think this is a good stopping place?
IR: I think that’s a good stopping place.
DB: I could keep going forever.
This article first appeared in www.99u.adobe.com
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