Hello! Today I have creative genius Veronica Padilla on the blog to talk about how she helps soften the stigma through her whimsical characters which she lovingly calls her Animals With Issues. Did you know that according to the World Health Organization that mental illness affects 1 in 5 people. However, talking about mental health issues can be challenging, so when I saw these cute little characters, I immediately thought, what a great way to help teach children about mental health or about how to educate others on their family’s mental health diagnosis in a more lighthearted manner. Although mental health is a serious topic and should be taken seriously, there are other creative ways to introduce and educate others about it to help break down the stigma around it.
So, here we go…
Hi Veronica! Thank you for your time.
Tell me about yourself.
What is Gentle Mentals?
Gentle Mentals is a Chicago-based grassroots initiative aimed at shining a playful light on mental illness to soften its stigma and get people talking. We mix hyper-friendly, minimalist design and a little dark truthful humor to address this heavy topic. Laughter is healing and a powerful ice-breaker into a conversation. If we can speak more openly about something that touches so many, we'd all be better for it.
How did you come up with the idea of animals with mental health issues?
The idea came came by accident. I misheard my step-daughter say something that I swear sounded like “bipolar bear.” We thought the absurdity of this was hilarious and quickly came up with a few more characters. That day I decided to make a book. They always say write about what you know and I knew all these characters very well. Between my father, myself, my husband, step-kids, and co-workers we can check off almost every major mental illness. As I got deeper into the project, it became more and more apparent that this was bigger than a book and had much deeper meaning to me as well. A perfect example of turning pain into purpose.
I like your hashtag #TakesOneToLoveOne can you explain what that means?
There was a saying that we used as kids, a come-back when someone would tease you. And it was “takes one to know one.” Knowing that there is a stigma with mental illness, I wanted to riff off of that but to put a positive spin on it. And now it has a double meaning for me. It only takes one person to love another, to change perspective and to be the light for someone else when things are dark. But also, “takes one to know one” as in I’ve been there on both sides of the coin – as someone who’s suffered through it and as the loved one for the person who is suffering. Both sides are difficult. Both sides need love and support.
On your website you say that labels are used to ignite a dialogue about real stuff and you explain this in a very positive way, can you tell me more about why you feel this way?
We like to say that labels are the P.I.T.S. (Provocative Invitations to Talk Sincerely.) Gentle Mentals are fictional animals with very real issues. And each character is named according to the illness they deal with – Bipolar Bear, Borderline Collie, ADHD’eer, etc. These labels are shorthand for understanding a bit of their story and are the gateway into a larger discussion. We aren’t using the labels to name-call or offend, but instead as a tool to inspire dialogue. I designed the characters in an innocent, child-like fashion to diffuse the taboo topic of mental illness. It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick. Rather than talking about the stigma and how we need to stop it, we have characters embody a specific illness trait. The characters themselves do the heavy lifting for us. And people relate to the characters instantly—I often get responses like, “I love OCD Otter!” or “Hypochondriac Hippo is my favorite!” or “I can so relate to PTSDingo and Anxiety Allie!” Suddenly people find themselves talking about it without even realizing it and not making it into a big deal. It normalizes and neutralizes something that is typically very touchy – which is really cool and exactly the point.
There is some depersonalization of labels and stigma through the use of animals instead of people. Personally, I think this is a genius idea however, have you ever faced any controversy over your approach?
I think that the depersonalization of the animals with labels is what makes the idea work. Many people have embraced it, love it and get what we’re doing. We’ve had a lot of initial conversations with big mental health organizations that love our idea and want to partner with us, but who got cold feet. My assumption is that most of these organizations have spent a lot of time, money and effort to train people to approach the topic in a very specific, careful way. And our approach might appear to go against the grain of what they’ve been preaching. So I understand why they’re hesitant to take a risk with us. We aren’t taking a traditional route and it might make some people nervous. But it’s also why I think that it has the potential to change the current norm and really make a difference.
Can you tell me about how you helped change someone’s life through Gentle Mentals?
My dream is to make some impact and change people’s lives – to get people talking so that they can get the help and support they need before things get too dark. I know that I’ve achieved that based on the feedback and the small successes we’ve had. People telling me how refreshing this is and that they feel a weight has been lifted because it’s ok to laugh a little. Not to make fun, but to take some of the pressure off. People that are strangers as well as people I’ve known for years, unloading a life-time of mental weight that they have been carrying.
How are you giving back to the community through your organization?
Beyond enabling conversation, we also carry a small line of products which we call Mental Goods. We sell the book, a journal (Mental Notes), prints and t-shirts. And we donate a portion of the proceeds to mental health and suicide prevention organizations.
What do you see for the future of Gentle Mentals?
More Mental Goods – Plushies!! How cool would it be to have fuzzy tangible softies that we can hug when times get tough or punch instead of beating ourselves up? I’m planning on starting a Kickstarter campaign to help make this happen. But first I’m focusing on building our community to make sure the campaign won’t die before it’s been given a chance. So if you want to see plushies too, please follow us on social and share our project!
I’m also planning to have a pop-up shop/art installation in May 2019 to honor mental health month. And hoping to create a non-profit organization that promotes mental health awareness through the lens of entertainment, educating without being preachy.
And a bit farther down the line I dream of having a theater production of the book produced. With comedians giving monologues about each character. So to anyone interested in helping to make this happen, please reach out! I’d love to hear from you.J
Where can we find you?
Thank you for sharing your time with us today Veronica!