I think on an individual level, people can make sure that they are checking in on and supporting their friends. People can get very good at hiding mental illness, and it’s incredibly likely you know someone struggling who just hasn’t opened up about it yet. It’s important to make those individual connections and show the people around you that you are there to support them, because even if it seems like it won’t make that much of a difference, it can mean the world to someone who is silently struggling. I think in terms of the larger scale, mental health resources need to be more accessible, more widespread, and far less stigmatized. We need to stop considering therapy and medication these abnormal resources that only “crazy” people would make use of, because that can completely discourage people who may actually really benefit from those things from seeking them out. On the other side, I think everyone should have access to those resources.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Caroline Kaufman. Caroline is known as @poeticpoison on Instagram — who was only a freshman in high school when she began posting her poetry online, and since then has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers across social media reading her work worldwide. Her debut book, Light Filters In, was published last year, and she was later named one of Her Campus’s 22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women in 2018 for her work destigmatizing mental illness through poetry. Caroline grew up in Westchester, New York, and is currently studying English at Harvard University. Her second book, When The World Didn’t End, was just released on August 20th.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, I never intended for writing to be my focus. I’ve wanted to be a doctor for most of my life, actually! But in high school, I started writing a lot on the side, as a kind of catharsis. Once I got to college, I began studying English more seriously and had my first poetry book published at the end of my freshman year. I honestly didn’t even think a career in creative writing or poetry was an option for me, but it quickly went from a side hobby to my main passion, and I’m incredibly grateful I’ve had an opportunity to focus on it like this.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I think, especially because not many people feel comfortable talking about it, most people don’t really understand mental illness very well, and that leads to stigma and misconceptions. Growing up, I really only learned about mental illness through media, books, TV shows, etc. And when I started developing depression, I honestly didn’t think I had an issue (or that it wasn’t “bad enough” to be an issue) because my experience didn’t really line up with how I had always seen depression portrayed in front of me. We focus a lot on the “rock bottom experiences” and the extreme lows, as well as the “back to normal” full recovery, when in truth, 99% of living with mental illness falls somewhere in between those two extremes. I think people are much more unfamiliar with that in-between, because they’ve been less exposed to it, and therefore it’s much harder for them to understand when people are experiencing it.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I think the way that I’m trying to de-stigmatize this experience is by being transparent through every aspect of it — not just the rock bottom days and the full recovery. I try to be incredibly honest about how I live most of my life in the in-between. I talk very openly about how difficult some days can be for me, even though I’m technically “recovered”. I don’t sugar coat my experience and pretend like I am suddenly cured. I’ve struggled with depression for almost nine years now, and it’s possible that I’ll have to struggle with it for the rest of my life. So, for people who may not experience it, I try to shed light on the fact that this can be a continuous battle for people; something that we may not be able to just move on from or leave in the past. And, for people who do struggle with mental illness, I try to emphasize how possible it is to still live a happy and healthy life, even if you are not 100% cured. I’m still in therapy, I still take medication, I still have my bad days — but I really do love the life that I have right now, and I think that’s an important thing to highlight.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Honestly, I never intended to “launch” any huge initiative. Writing, as well as posting that work online, started purely for myself. I didn’t think anything would come from it. I was young, I was alone, I was scared, and writing was how I worked through those emotions. By posting my poetry online, I could get one or two comments that reminded me that other people were going through a similar thing, and I could feel less alone. I never meant to gain such a massive following, but once I did, I realized how important this transparency and message was — especially for younger teenagers, who made up most of my audience. I felt so isolated and alone when I was that age, and a reason I kept writing and kept pushing myself to be so transparent was to make sure that none of them ever felt as alone as I did when I was their age.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
I think on an individual level, people can make sure that they are checking in on and supporting their friends. People can get very good at hiding mental illness, and it’s incredibly likely you know someone struggling who just hasn’t opened up about it yet. It’s important to make those individual connections and show the people around you that you are there to support them, because even if it seems like it won’t make that much of a difference, it can mean the world to someone who is silently struggling. I think in terms of the larger scale, mental health resources need to be more accessible, more widespread, and far less stigmatized. We need to stop considering therapy and medication these abnormal resources that only “crazy” people would make use of, because that can completely discourage people who may actually really benefit from those things from seeking them out. On the other side, I think everyone should have access to those resources. I’m incredibly lucky that I have great health insurance and come from a family that has been willing to support me going through years of therapy and antidepressant prescriptions. But, I don’t think access to mental health resources should rely on “luck”. I don’t know where I’d be today — or if I’d even be here at all — if I didn’t have health insurance and therefore wasn’t able to afford my therapy sessions and medications. I think every person deserves to have those resources be completely accessible, plentiful, and encouraged.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
Let’s see — there are a few things I do. Something I’ve noticed is that the hardest part of the day for me is getting out of bed in the morning. And if nothing motivates me enough to get up, I’ll stay there all day and just feel worse and worse as time goes on. One thing I do to try and combat this is purposely plan breakfasts or lunches with friends for the following day, so that I have someone else holding me accountable and I can basically force myself out of bed for the day. Or, if I don’t have anyone I need to see, I honestly make up random plans for myself (such as returning a library book or making a CVS run), just to have reason to get up and out of my room. Once I’m up, it’s so much easier to be productive and get through my day — I just need that first push. I also have things I regularly do when I’m especially stressed, and keep the related items in my room so that I have easy access to them. For example, I have my ukulele with me at college, and if I’m having a particularly rough day I’ll take it out and try to learn a song I like on it. I also keep face masks right by my desk and will put one on if I’m feeling overwhelmed by work. Lastly, I make sure to not be too hard on myself when I have bad days, and try to surround myself with people who won’t be hard on me either. I’ve found that if I’m having a particularly rough time and try to just ignore how I’m feeling and push through it, I’ll just end up feeling even worse and completely burnt out. I try to make sure to stop myself, take breaks, and do things I find relaxing before I ever get to that completely overwhelmed state of mind, because we all deserve to take care ourselves, even if we haven’t completely fallen apart yet. And I surround myself with people who know and understand that; who can recognize when I’m getting a bit overwhelmed and encourage me to take it slow, even if I don’t particularly want to. I think that has been incredibly helpful as I navigate life in recovery.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
As a poet, I’ve found a lot of poetry pieces and books to be the most inspiring when it comes to mental health. I think the raw emotional aspects of poetry as an art form really work well hand in hand with mental illness as a subject matter, and it allows narratives of mental illness to be told in a very honest and uncensored way. I’ve read a lot of books that deal with mental illness, a lot of poems, a lot of articles…but I think more important than reading any one piece or book is the amount of those things you consume. Mental illness is a very personal subject — there are so many different illnesses and so many different ways those illnesses manifest that there is no one specific way to encompass that experience as a whole. But, if you read a few articles on some coping strategies, and a few books on personal experience, and listen to a few podcasts on self-care, you’ll be able to pick out the pieces that you may relate to and the nuggets of information that may work for you personally, and end up with a much better understanding of yourself, while also feeling less alone. There is no way to list the steps everyone should take, or the strategies everyone should try, because those aren’t going to work for everyone. It’s important to really take the time to find each specific strategy that works for you personally, and not be too hard on yourself when something recommended in a few articles doesn’t work — that’s okay! We are all different. And once you figure out what works best for you, your diagnosis, your personality, and your interests, you’ll be able to create a sort of “safety net” that is effective for you.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.