Gentle Mentals is a multimedia initiative that aims to incite a safe and honest dialogue about mental illness with the mission of normalizing the experience while spreading knowledge about various conditions. The project features anthropomorphic animals, each representing a different diagnosis – among them Bipolar Bear, Hypochondriac Hippo, and Depressed Dolphin. As stated on their website, “[The animals] allow us as humans to step back, relate and see mental illness without judgment. They carry the burden of the label so we don’t have to.”
By making the content playful and kid-friendly, Gentle Mentals wants to make the topic approachable while encouraging the conversation to begin at an early age. Doing so will hopefully generate a longer-lasting, systemic cultural shift in the way we think about and treat mental illness.
The goal of our “ENDPAIN in the World” series is to promote projects and initiatives that are in alignment with our own mission. The overlap between Gentle Mentals and ourselves is clear, both striving to carve out a kind and compassionate space to engage with thoughts and experiences that so often live in the shadows. We talked to Veronica Padilla, the founder of Gentle Mentals and the author and illustrator of the book that started it all.
Grace Gregory: What is the origin story of Gentle Mentals – was there anything in your personal life that made you emotionally invested in the discourse around mental health?
Veronica Padilla: Yes. Well, the initial idea 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. I’m a graphic designer and had always wanted to illustrate a book, but just never knew what it would be about. At that moment I knew. They always say write about what you know, and I knew all of these characters very well.
A little backstory on that. As a kid, one of my earliest memories was waking up to chaos in the kitchen and police sirens. And my dad with a kitchen knife to his wrist, on the verge of ending his life, sobbing and apologizing for what he was about to do. Saying his pain was too much, he couldn’t take it anymore and that he was sorry. He suffered from severe depression, anxiety, insomnia and was a bit of a hypochondriac. He took tons of pills to “fix” everything, but it only seemed to get worse. As a family, we never talked about any of it. Throughout my youth he continued on this path, and at one point even tried to will himself to death by means of bulimia and anorexia. I’d find goodbye letters written specifically to me and on another occasion, found a noose strung up.
Needless to say, it was a really tough situation to grow up in. So it’s no surprise that I developed a handful of problems myself: PTSD, paranoia (I thought everyone hated me and talked about me behind my back), bulimia (I’d eat to numb myself until I felt the need to pop and then I did, and hated myself even more for it), and depression took over to the point of several suicide attempts in high school. The last time was the closest call. I planned it so that no one was supposed to find me until it would be too late. But by some lucky coincidence, someone came home early. This time I woke up to chaos and sirens but from inside the ambulance. Poked and prodded with IVs and tubes, and charcoal and stomach pumps, being slapped, shaken and yelled at to stay awake. Pretty intense. After the dust settled, the nurse told me I was very lucky because I flat-lined and that it was a miracle that I was alive. I believed her. Being so close to death scared me enough to never want to end it ever again. Still there was silence, and even to this day it’s very awkward and we don’t really talk about any of it.
So fast forward to now – between my father, myself, my husband, step-kids, co-workers, friends, and even friends of friends, we can check off many serious mental illnesses. One in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness (NAMI), so it’s not actually very surprising. As I got deeper into the project, it became very apparent that this was bigger than a book and had much more meaning to me as well. In a way I made it for my younger self, with an adult mindset. And now I hope that it can get people talking well before things get that dire.
GG: What was the intention behind its creation, and has that shifted over time?
VP: The original intent was just creative expression and to make something that was entertaining. As I created each character, it triggered so many memories that were deeply buried and dormant. I thought about giving up several times along the way. It felt too hard. There was a lot of soul-searching to figure out “why?” and “how can I help people with this?” And my family didn’t really get it at first – “Why would you want to put yourself in a position to be scrutinized and labeled as that crazy lady with the characters?” I wasn’t offended because I knew this was a protective response. I had another friend say, “Whoa, that’s pretty dark.” Logically, both responses made sense because that’s the current societal norm with regard to mental illness. They were also the exact reasons why I needed to keep pushing forward – to try to address this sort of perception.
So I did what any designer would do and created a website to give it more depth, context, meaning and resources. So now it’s time to help pull others out of the pit. And that’s why I’m willing to put it all out there as the sacrificial lamb. If I can help people feel like they can take a deep breath, maybe even laugh a little during tough times, and talk about mental illness without feeling awkward, it’ll all be worth it. And who knows, maybe that lucky coincidence of someone coming home early to find me was no coincidence at all.
GG: We hear “destigmatizing” a lot in regards to mental illness, but what does that actually mean and more importantly, look like?
VP: Rather than talking about ending the stigma, or “destigmatization,” Gentle Mentals fast forwards and creates a space where the stigma just doesn’t exist. We don’t tiptoe or walk on eggshells. We’re matter-of-fact about these very real conditions and we wrap them up in a sweet visual package to disarm them. People inherently relate with the characters because these conditions are so common, and they quickly adopt at least one of them as their own, sometimes a few. Then they find themselves talking about their own diagnoses, symptoms, or issues.
Another road block is really just getting exposure and visibility for the project. We’re a tiny operation that launched last summer with zero funding. I’m making all of the content, knocking on doors, trying to connect with likeminded groups that “get us.”
GG: In your ideal world, how would healthcare and the medical industry approach mental illness?
Ooof! I could go on for days about this. I’m not a huge fan of traditional western medicine practices and the current approach to treating symptoms and illness. A pill for your ill and then go away – Next! Watching my dad and loved ones over the years get progressively worse even though they did everything they were “supposed” to do really adds to my distaste of it.
This is why the functional medicine model makes perfect sense and is the future of healthcare. People are tired of going to the doctor and not getting better. In case you’ve never heard of functional medicine, these are doctors fully trained as western doctors who then go deeper with their certification to become functional medicine practitioners. Their goal is to get to the root of the problem, looking at a broader spectrum of life/body/mind stressors to create a more individualized approach to treating illness. They can prescribe medication too if that’s what’s needed. But it isn’t always the first form of treatment. Diet and lifestyle are a big part of it.
We can’t control everything, but we can control some things. And it’s really empowering to know that there are lifestyle choices we can make to help us steer the ship when everything else around us, or even inside of us, is a little wonky. There’s safety in that. And prioritizing basic human needs such as quality food, movement, sleep, mindfulness, social connection and purpose will certainly help to make us feel better overall. I’m such a huge fan and subscriber of this thinking that I’m actually in the process of becoming a wellness coach to help people on their own health journey.
GG: Gentle Mental’s style and tone seems as if it were designed with children in mind. Why is it important to intentionally include children in this conversation?
Well, the intent for this project was to parody the visual language of children’s books because they’re so simple, charming and approachable - something I haven’t seen been done with the topic of mental illness. But because of this, many people think it’s exclusively for kids and they really want it to be. It’s uncharted territory and could be very helpful to approach it in this way for them. Currently, some of the characters might be more appropriate for teens and young adults. But I’m considering making an alternative version of the book that softens these characters so they can all be age appropriate. I recently saw the documentary on the life of Fred Rogers and his approach – so cool and in line with what I’m trying to do. It’s probably not a coincidence since I grew up watching his show. But he was able to take very large, even controversial subjects and unpack them for kids with the use of puppets in a very disarming way. We never saw it coming. So in the same vein, if we can introduce these characters and concepts early in life, the hope is that young people would be less inclined to see it as scary or hard to talk about when these things come up with themselves or for a family member or friend. It’s a universal theme no matter what age you are.
GG: The dichotomy you pose about labels – that they can be both damaging and empowering – is really interesting and relevant to the wider conversation around pain and illness. How can we use labels to our advantage and resist being defined by them?
We like to say that labels are the P.I.T.S. (Provocative Invitations to Talk Sincerely.) We’re fully aware that being defined by a single label sucks. But that’s not what we’re doing. We aren’t using the labels to shame, name-call or offend, but instead as a tool to inspire dialogue. That’s where the empowering part comes in. 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. Rather than talking about the stigma and how we need to stop it, our characters embody a specific illness trait. And the characters themselves do the heavy lifting for us. 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 it’s not awkward at all. It normalizes and neutralizes something that is typically very touchy – which is really freeing and exactly the point. I love the fact that they feel a sweet affinity towards these labeled animals. It also reminds me of when Barbie finally made a brunette when I was a kid and I remember being thrilled that there was finally one for me. But beyond all these things, it goes without saying that no single label could ever define us because we are made up of thousands. And having this perspective is also very liberating.
GG: Besides the book, how does the initiative plan to spread the teachings of Gentle Mentals?
From the book we were able to create an animated short. We’ve been lucky enough to have been officially selected and screened at fifteen film festivals around the world, in London, Sydney, LA, NYC, Portugal, Greece and more. The more eyeballs on our mission, the better.
Our Instagram account captures the spirit of what we’re about in little bitesize morsels. We really push humor, hope, and self-care through the Gentle Mentals lens and aesthetic. We hope that these mini-bites help to seed some positivity in people’s lives.
GG: Are there any other hopes, dreams, or goals for the initiative that you want to share?
Oh, goodness, so many. But for starters, 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 awareness month. And I’m hoping to create a non-profit organization that promotes mental health awareness through the lens of entertainment – educating without being preachy.
A bit farther down the line I dream of having a theater production of the book produced, with comedians performing monologues about each character. So to anyone interested in helping to make this happen, please reach out! I’d love to hear from you.