Imagine if we dealt with the common cold the way we deal with mental health. You feel a cough coming on, your throat gets sore, you’ve got the sniffles — do you go to the doctor? Do you tell your friends you’re not feeling well, and ask your family to pick you up something from the pharmacy? Do you make sure you get the help you need?
According to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health, only half of the people with mental illnesses are receiving the treatment they need. Part of this is related to insurance coverage or not having the resources to go to the doctor. But there’s another reason, one that we can’t blame government bureaucracy or Congress for: despite the fact that it affects millions of people every year, mental health is an issue that is shrouded in taboo.
“I don't feel like there can ever be enough rainbow unicorns, and sparkly cats, and things like that,” said Allan, who describes her work as “Lisa Frank meets your therapist.”
Whether it’s Calvin and his tiger Hobbs talking about philosophy, or cows talking cultural satire in Gary Larson’s The Far Side, comic artists have long used animals to get readers to consider human issues in a new light. With The Latest Kate, Allan is using animals to help her community internalize positive messages that otherwise may be thwarted by depression and negative thinking.
And by funding her illustration series through membership on Patreon, Allan is able to avoid advertising in a way that feels inauthentic to her and her audience.
“My audience is mine. We are here, and we are a vulnerable community, and I want to do whatever I can to protect that community. I’m not interested in trying to sell them products — let alone (ones) I haven’t tried myself,” said Allan at at the Hollywood creator panel at Patreon Assembly.
The reason that Allan understands her audience so well is simple. She didn’t start creating The Latest Kate purely as a way to help others deal with depression — she started it to help herself, too.
“I basically had a breakdown,” said Allan about why she first started drawing The Latest Kate in 2014. “My therapist said, ‘your thoughts are ruining your life, and you have to argue against this as hard as you can.’ And I was like, if I'm going to go to all of this work, then I'm going to try and make it available for other people as well. I'm going to help, as much as I can, argue against negativity that people with any sort of anxiety or depression experience.”
Inspired by artists like Ruby ETC, an illustrator who makes comics about mental health, Allan started posting drawings on Tumblr that spoke to her personal experience with anxiety and depression. Though initially, she was scared to write about her struggles so openly, almost immediately, a community of people on Tumblr started gathering around her art.
"I just wanted to be part of that community on Tumblr of people who were just open about, 'I woke up today and I didn't want to be alive,' and I'm like, you know what I'm talking about," said Allan about the inspiration behind her early webcomics. "And yet, you are also able to joke about it and able to distance yourself a little bit from it, which I was really struggling with. So I wanted to have my own place in that community online."
As her art developed, and her community grew, she realized that validating people’s experiences with depression and anxiety was amazing — but what if she could actually make them feel better? In her own life, writing positive affirmations in her journal had helped her fight back against negative thinking. Could pairing helpful messages with her webcomic help her community, as well?
“I ended up having a journal of homemade affirmations of things that were coming up throughout the day,” explained Allan, when asked how she came up with the idea to pair positive messages with her drawings. “People with depression have problems with feeling like they're unworthy of the things that they have. ‘ I feel like I'm worthless. I feel like I'm a burden.’ So I'd have to counter that in my journal. ‘You are not worthless, you are not a burden.’ And so, since I was filling up this journal of things, I thought — ‘What if I also paired this with drawings that make me feel good?”
Since journaling helped Allan so much, she decided to publish a book with the aim of getting her community to start a journal themselves.
“The book that I just had come out is called, It's Your Weirdness That Makes You Wonderful, and it's a prompt journal,” said Allan. “So it's kind of a call and response sort of thing. And it's got light hearted moments as well as trying to address some of the darker stuff, the way that you see yourself, and the ways that you talk to yourself, and then it's like, okay, we talked about body image. Now we're going to doodle for a little bit, because that's heavy.”