FromQuarkstoQuasars

Mental Illness is a Real Illness: An Interview with Robot Hugs

robot hugs

How to Write an Article about Mental Health: The Formula

Articles on mental health always start with the rather generic and (sadly) all too accurate claim: Mental health is a serious issue in our society, and unfortunately, mental health is also seriously misunderstood.

Then the article moves on to talking about just how pervasive mental health issues are in our society: At some point in their life, everyone will have, or know someone who has, a serious mental illness. However, despite this fact,  most people continue to believe that mental illness only affects other people. People who aren’t them. People they don’t know. People who are (to use the horrible word) “weak.”

After outlining this depressing fact, writers turn to statistics in order to ensure that the dramatic and deadly nature of the situation is understood: In the United States alone, 43.7 million people—that’s 1 in 5 adults—experience mental illness in a given year. Of these individuals, 13.6 million will experience a serious mental illness, one that substantially interferes with basic day-to-day activities. And in the U.S., suicide is the 10th leading cause of death; ultimately, it is estimated that 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness.

Then, you have to highlight how, as a society, we are utterly failing to help a vast majority of these people: In the end, only about 20% of people who have a mental illness will ever be aware of it, even less will receive professional help. And in those rare instances where people do come forward and discuss their mental health issues, they are often stigmatized—misunderstood, criticized, or ignored—because many people continue to believe that mental illness is, somehow, fundamentally, different than other illnesses, “real” illnesses. That it is a disease of the mind rather than the body. It’s not.

The Issue with this “One-Size-Fits-All” Approach:

Articles that follow this pattern can be found all across the internet. This is a good thing. These things need to be said.

However, despite the plethora of articles and studies, despite the ever-increasing outreach efforts made by experts, many people remain uninformed. This ignorance continues to breed hate and resentment. Even worse, a number of pseudo-intellectuals flat-out deny the findings of scientists and experts working in the field. Which breeds more ignorance and more hate.

Fortunately, there are a number of individuals who are trying to find a new formula.

Meet Robot Hugs:

robot hugs
Image credit: Robot Hugs

Most people use the internet for mindless entertainment. They want to jump into the recesses of the digital world and see amazing images from other lands, read about fascinating and otherworldly organisms, watch videos of mind-blowing storms, or just have a laugh. For the most part, people don’t want to read a twenty-thousand word article…no matter the topic, no matter the importance.

This is where Robot Hugs comes in.

Robot Hugs is a webcomic that covers a variety of topics. They talk about identity, healthy relationships, sociopolitical issues, cats, and (most notably) mental illness. The creator of Robot Hugs, who just goes by RH, is open about their own experiences living with (and living alongside others who have) mental illnesses. And they are using this work to transform the way that people understand mental illness.

In four panels, they convey the same information that would take most mental health experts several thousand words.

And they do it in a way that is, at once, funny, interesting, and engaging. They convey thoughts and feelings and information with an elegance that is hard to match and impossible to ignore. But perhaps most importantly, they are reaching people who feel alone, who believe that no one understands them and that they have no where to turn. Robot Hugs isn’t just educating people about the realities of mental illness, they are changing lives.

It might be hard to understand how a simple webcomic can do so much, but for those of you who are skeptical, I encourage you to spend some time browsing about their archive, or if this suits you better, simply read on, as in a recent interview with us, RH shared their thoughts on art, mental illness, and how small things like webcomics can open doors, how they can revolutionize the way that we see the people, and the world, around us.

Fighting for Mental Health:

As previously mentioned, there are a number of misunderstandings (and downright hateful assumptions) that people have about both mental health and the individuals who have a mental illness. This is something that RH is all too aware of, and it is part of what drives them in their work.

Mental health is a global issue. Mental illness affects people of every race, class, and nationality. Access to mental health resources is a global crisis, and that access is affected and compromised (or facilitated) by factors from all levels of society: legislative, medical, community, employment, interpersonal, individual.

The stigma that mental illness is not real illness, or that it only affects the weak, or that it is shameful, those stigmas permeate each of those levels. This includes governments defunding mental health care, medical professionals dismissing or avoiding issues of mental illness in their patients, communities who turn their backs on their most at-risk members, and families who hide behinds walls of secrecy.

RH continues by stating that, often, the most vulnerable in society—those who are already marginalized and perceived as being on the outside looking in—are the ones who face the most hardships. Unfortunately, stigmas regarding mental illness amalgamate with other issues; they wash together and form a tidal wave that is difficult to surmount.

Individuals who are already experiencing discrimination such as racism, transphobia, and abelism experience compounded challenges when trying to access mental health care that helps them instead of further contributing to their marginalization. For example, a trans person may find themselves unable to access medical transition support if they are diagnosed with a mental illness. We’ve all heard jokes about the ‘crazy homeless woman’ – but how is she supposed to access help, when she has no stable housing, no money to buy medication, no doctor to refer her to mental health professionals, and whose ‘erratic’ behaviour prevents her from accessing the shelter system or seeking employment?

Her life on that street is a symptom of a system-wide failure.

The whole system, top down and bottom up, is not equipped to support people with mental illness. It barely address mental health issues with its most privileged members, and it frequently fails the less privileged. The most pressing issue is that the systemic failure to understand, address, and provide support for individuals is literally killing people. And it’s not just the people with mental illness who are harmed – recently the comiker/writer K.Copeland was prevented from providing a marrow donation to a person with leukemia because she has a schizophrenia diagnosis—the reasoning being that her mental illness compromised her ability to make informed and responsible medical decisions.

This stigma and ignorance doesn’t just hurt people’s feelings, it causes direct harm to our communities, our bodies, and our lives.

But despite the seriousness of these issues, RH notes that Robot Hugs wasn’t started as an altruistic endeavor—as a way to help others understand and cope with mental illness. Of course, that is a happy consequence of the webcomic, but initially, it was a way for RH to help cope with their own mental health issues.

I started drawing these about 9 years ago, in university. Back then I was just doing these dumb little drawings on post it notes and sticking them on the walls in the house….I started drawing my post-its prior to getting diagnosed as mentally ill, and I was just trying to do anything that could get me outside of my head. I didn’t know what was going on with my brain, I felt crazy. I wasn’t good at being around people, I certainly wasn’t a great housemate, and I was struggling in my studies, but I sure could draw penguins on post-it notes and stick them on the wall. It became a little thing I could do that would sooth my jagged thoughts, and built a little body of work that was all my own.

Eventually, these small little post-its would grow into what is, today: Robot Hugs.

mental illness robot hugs
Image credit: Robot Hugs (click for full comic)

With this in mind RH notes that, in the beginning, Robot Hugs direction was…somewhat lacking. “Someone lent me a drawing tablet, and I started sporadically putting them on on a little university webspace, and then I got the Robot Hugs domain and started a regular update schedule. So my early stuff, at the beginning of the archivesoh gods, don’t go read through those though—are a reflection of that mental coping mechanism.”

And despite the fact that the webcomic has grown a rather loyal following, and appeared on a plethora of sites (like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Everyday Feminism, just to name a few) at its core, Robot Hugs is still largely a way to RH to express theirself. “While I still very much use drawing and posting comics as a way to help my head, I have the emotional energy and personal experience to be able to focus that into comics that speak more directly to things I care about. It’s a way of engaging with topics on my own terms, with my own words, in a creative and fun way.”

When asked why they continue to work on Robot Hugs, RH responds simply, “It’s become part of my identity. I’d feel less whole without it.”

How Art can Join the Battle:

But as previously mentioned, Robot Hugs eventually grew in to much more than just a way to pass the time or a personal coping mechanism—it is a thoughtful exploration of some of the most sensitive and traumatic issues in our society. It is an unassuming, but simultaneously powerful and compelling way to engage individuals in conversations about the aforementioned issues, which are of such terrible importance.

And as RH notes, considering that many people don’t use the internet to read book-length articles, a webcomic is the perfect format for these conversations. “Art is communication! When we’re faced with issues associated with harmful stigma, such as mental illness, the response should always be to talk more, talk louder. The combination of visual and textual information can make a message easier to digest and more accessible. I just wrote, like, 350 words above, which will probably make people’s eyes glaze over (no judgement!), but I can draw a comic with the same message that thousands of people will read.”

And spreading information about mental health is something that, frankly, we need to do more. As RH states, this “talking” has an amazing impact.

So many of the emails I get are from people who say that my work helps them feel less alone. The sheer volume of emails I get saying ‘I had no idea someone else felt this way’ speaks to how isolating mental illness can be. Others talk about showing comics to partners, friends, or family, as a way of helping them understand what they’re experiencing. I’ve seen my comics being posted online and sparking some great discussions, or as rebuttals to harmful misconceptions.

The overwhelming majority of the responses to my work are positive. I have a wonderful and diverse group of followers, and I’m constantly astounded how many people seem to identify with and appreciate the comic (even when it’s just dumb cat jokes).

Sometimes I’m surprised which comics gain a lot of traction—Helpful Advice came from a conversation with a good friend of mine, and I thought it was a fairly basic message about mental illness stigma. However, it’s been widely picked up and used in academic presentations, on mental health blogs, by medical professionals, and featured in a few large newspapers across the world. I feel like the fact that so many people found great value in the basic message of ‘mental illness is real illness’ shows how far we still have to go.

But of course, talking about these issues is not always easy. Given the serious nature of the topic, one has to walk (draw?) carefully. RH asserts,

The challenging thing about speaking to these ‘big’ issues, mental health certainly being one of them, is that it’s impossible to encompass the entirety of the experiences and challenges around that issue, and people can feel slighted, left out, or injured. If I’m going to speak to these issues that touch people so directly, it’s my responsibility to try as hard as I can not to contribute to marginalizing or silencing people. At the same time, my canvas is only so big! The mental health comics are often very well received – many people are just glad that someone is talking about it.

Also, every once in a while I get a message from someone who suggests that I should just pray to get better, and I’m like ‘wow, you are reading the wrong comic.’

What We Can Do to Make Society Better:

“Haha. ‘Fix mental illness issues: Go!’. Welp, let’s see…”

Problems with how we see mental illness, and misunderstandings about mental health, come from all avenues of society. As such, there is no easy way to make things better (though if there was some magical wand, that would be lovely). Indeed, in our attempt to address the most serious concerns first, RH notes that we may be compounding the problem when, really, a healthy and stable population should be our very first concern—not an afterthought.

Obviously funding on a federal and local level towards mental health research, treatment, and support must be a priority. When mental health resources are strained, those resources get triaged to the most severe and pressing cases, but that leaves a lot of ‘sick but not sick enough’ individuals without help until they get bad enough to qualify.

Essentially, limiting the capabilities of community resources to only address the worst-case cases guarantees that there will be more of those cases. Those worst-case cases require more resources (and money) to address, so by limiting funding, we’re creating a sicker population that’s more expensive to treat. I mean, from a pragmatic financial point of view, healthier populations make for better economies. Organizations providing vital healthcare services, including mental healthcare, shouldn’t have to rely on donations and goodwill from the community in order to help people.

Mental health resources are often at the bottom of the budget list, partially because of the stigma and optics of it only affecting ‘those people’. This is shameful. We can do better.

But what about the everyday individual? Tackling issues on the community level? How can the rest of us help this process along? Unfortunately, things don’t get much easier, even when looking at the small scales. As RH asserts, “Part of the answer is that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of an individual to ‘fix society’. I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of a community is to care for and help its members, which is the responsibility of the both individual and the whole, and this responsibility should be baked into the very structure of that community.”

robot hugs mental illness
Image credit: Robot Hugs (Click for full comic)

And RH is also seriously skeptical (to put it delicately) of those who assert that it is up to individuals to help themselves, asserting that people should not be left to navigate the system (and confront serious issues like mental illness) on their own, “I know there are individuals and groups out there who believe in the ‘self responsibility’ and ‘bootstraps’ model, but I find this personally reprehensible and indefensible. We are only as good as the worst-treated person in our communities.”

But although RH doesn’t think there is much hope for super-heroes, individuals who single handedly step in and “fix society,” it is possible to have an impact.

I try myself to be the kind of society I want to live in. This involves calling out and refusing to tolerate (to the best of my ability) attitudes and actions around me that contribute to discrimination and stigma. This means putting my money and my vote where my mouth is, donating to organizations, paying my taxes, and voting for representatives who will represent the citizens who need them, instead of furthering the interests of the most privileged. It means educating myself. And it involves a refusal to be complacent—this, at least, comes easy for me—to demand a society that can be better, to seek out ways that we can facilitate this as individuals. This can be promoting and article on social media, donating to an important cause, campaigning for new legislation, voting, volunteering, educating, or find the space where you can make things better.

It means trying to be kind. I’ll easily admit that the last one is hard – it’s hard to be kind and empathetic. It takes effort and it’s annoying sometimes, but if I want a society that refuses to be indifferent, then I cannot be indifferent myself.

I just ran this question past my friend, and he suggested ‘stop treating mentally ill people like dicks would be a nice start’, which seems like as good as summation as any.

How to Help Those with Mental Illness:

So what do you do if a friend, partner, family member, co-worker, or well, anyone at all really, opens up to ou about their mental illness? Ultimately, RH has a number of suggestions.

First of all, recognize that no one wants this, and no one has chosen this, and that it is no one’s fault.

I’ve been on both sides of this – the person who needs help, and the person who is trying to help. I know it’s hard. You want to DO something, you want to make things better. You want them to try this new food, this new medication, this new therapy, because this might be the thing that helps! We hurt when the people we love hurt. We desperately want to fix things. I know this, but mental illness is complex and highly individual. It can be debilitating one day, and manageable the next. It twines itself around our lives, it can alter how we perceive things, how we process things, and how we react to things.

My best advice is to figure out what support you are willing to provide, and then provide it. If you can only hang out for an hour a week, then don’t say that your friend can ‘call you anytime’. Maybe you can be the person who cooks a meal a week, or drives them to appointments, or takes over the reading group they usually organize. Commit to what you can do, and follow through. A great way to be a support is to be predictable and dependable, which doesn’t always mean being constantly available. If you burn out, you’re not doing anyone any good.

Finally, learn how to support without trying to fix. Watch your language for ‘why haven’t you tried…’ or ‘maybe you should…’. Try more for ‘what have you thought about doing?’ and ‘is there a way I can support you with that?’. Do not underestimate the therapeutic value in making quiet, companionable space for someone to just be broken, to be sick or sad or incapacitated.

We spend so much time telling mentally ill people to just not be mentally ill anymore. Try to be patient. Look after yourself.


When asked about Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, or Firefly, RH responds, “Trek. But more importantly: Steven Universe.” You can follow Robot Hugs on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and order prints here.

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