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Bringing Mental Illness to Life as "Real Monsters"

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Manager

Toby Allen has lived with anxiety for much of his life. Three years ago, the now 22-year-old artist from the U.K. made his first attempt to take those feelings and experiences and represent them visually in a story called Toby and the Monsters. Based on the positive response he received from friends and the therapeutic benefits he experienced himself, Allen continued to revise those drawings and add other mental illnesses in the hopes that others might find some benefit as well. In his watercolor collection, Real Monsters, Allen gives a face to serious mental illness including schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and depression.

NAMI connected with Allen by email to gain some insight into where the monsters came from, what they’re here to do and where they’re headed next.

Where did the idea for the Real Monsters project come from?

The project originated from dealing with my own anxiety. I found that drawing my worries and fears as little monsters would help me think about them differently and make my anxiety feel more manageable. I imagined that my anxiety could be overcome by giving it a physical from, giving it a visible weakness that I could learn to exploit.
I created the anxiety monster first based on my personal experience and upon receiving a great response from my friends I decided to develop the concept into a much larger project that tackled a variety of mental illnesses or conditions that people close to me dealt with on a daily basis.

What did you hope to achieve by illustrating mental illness with these characters?

I hoped to draw attention to mental illnesses that often get ignored or aren't taken seriously. Anxiety disorder is a very good example, the condition often being seen as trivial or not serious enough. I know this from personal experience, often having to remind people how difficult it can be to live with anxiety and do ordinary tasks that other people find easy. I want to make people aware of how damaging these illnesses are and how much of a burden they can be to those who suffer from them. The project highlights conditions that some people may have never even heard of, so the work aims to raise awareness for these.

I hope that people can relate to the work and that it helps them to see their illness in a different light. I think there is enough comedy within the illustration that can help people see their own ‘monster’ in a less threatening way but still emphasise how serious these conditions can be. In all the work that I create, I want to make people smile but if I can help raise awareness for mental illnesses too then it is even more rewarding.

How did you decide how to represent each of the specific illnesses?

I begin each monster design by researching the condition or disorder extensively, often relying on real life case studies or first person stories to get a better understanding of the illness I intend to draw. I constantly sketch throughout the researching process and try out many different ideas until I get something that works. I try to incorporate many different elements of the disorder into the monster's character or look which are then reflected in the descriptions, deepening the concept or understanding of each character.

Looking specifically at the anxiety monster, its form is based on small rodents that like to hide in dark places. The dark colours reflect the heavy and oppressive feelings that I associate with being anxious and the shock of bright pink in its design represents the intense rush of fear that occurs when I have an anxiety related panic attack. The clock refers to a common anxiety related to worries or fears of unpleasant future events that may never actually happen, something I know very well.

With all of the monsters, I try to reflect other people's experiences with their own disorder or condition to help develop a character that people can relate to. Of course each person’s experience with a mental illness will differ, so I try to create something that many people will find familiar.

What kind of reaction have you received to the work?

The work has gained a huge positive response from the Tumblr community in particular and the project went viral within a week of it being published on my blog. I have received so many wonderful messages from people who live with one or many of the disorders I have drawn, each telling me how much the work means to them and how it has helped them to think about their condition in a different or more positive way. I regularly receive heartfelt and sincere emails from people who wish to thank me for creating the work, as if I created it especially for them.
It is a real pleasure to hear from people who really appreciate all the hard work that has gone into the project and it is more than I could ever have expected.

Why do you think that reaction has been so positive?

I think that people appreciate the artwork as well as the unique presentation and stories behind the monster characters. People can relate to the monsters and imagine their condition in a different way than they thought previous, something making them laugh or simply feel a little bit better about their condition. Art has always had a big impact on its audiences and I’m glad that my work has had a profound and positive effect on my audience.

What plans do you have for the project in the future?

I will be continuing the project and creating at least two new sets of monsters in the near future. There are some very common illnesses that weren’t presented in the first set such as OCD and bipolar disorder, so I would like to tackle those and also represent some illnesses that people may not be so familiar with. These would include selective mutism, schizotypal personality disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

After creating the monster sets I would like to compile the work into a book, so people can enjoy the work up close and the book could be put to use in helping young people especially come to terms with their mental illness. I have already had a lot of interest from psychotherapists and doctors who would like to use the work in this way.