‘We all have our metaphors:’ Artist uses comics to discuss mental health

Mar 12, 2024

From classrooms to libraries to bookstore shelves, local artist and educator Cara Bean helps people approach their mental health with a pairing of mental health research and vivid, colorful cartoons.

April 2 will mark the release of Bean’s first full book, titled “Here I Am: I Am Me.” The book is a graphic novel type book meant to help kids understand the neuroscience of their brains and how that connects to their emotions. 

Bean first started to pair cartoons and mental health while working as a high school art teacher. She spent 13 years teaching, and as she encountered students coming to her with mental health concerns, she realized she wasn’t equipped for the topic. 

She began to attend any training sessions on professional development opportunities offered about mental health. “Because I’m a cartoonist, my notes are all doodles and drawings,” she said. 

Cartooning turned out to be a good medium for describing mental health. People connected to her doodles, whether they saw them as notes or after she put them online. 

“We all have our metaphors, we all have our, ‘This feels like this to me,’ and I think that’s a fun part of cartooning,” she said. 

Bean is able to show through the artwork what depression feels like or what anxiety feels like to different people, “and it’s not the same for everyone,” she said. “It’s nice to have like 20 different people’s metaphors for that.”

The cartoons she made turned into a pamphlet, then eventually into “Here I Am: I Am Me.” But the process of getting the book made took longer than Bean had expected. 

Bean got a contract with a publisher who wanted a book that talked to kids about mental health and took a year off of teaching to try and put that book together. That year of work barely scratched the surface, and in 2018, she quit teaching to focus on writing full time. 

At the start, she was trying to write the book as narrative stories, to little success. 

“It was just crumpling and dying every time I tried to do that, because the only way for me the book could work is if it was me talking —- I had to be in the book,” she said. Without a personal touch, she added, the book risked coming off as cheesy, or like an after-school special. “You have to be like, ‘I’m a real person,’” she said. 

Bean included “pink pages” telling personal stories from her life alongside the parts of the book more heavily focused on the science of mental health. 

Researching the science brought Bean down a rabbit hole, but she had to decide to cut that research off at a certain point. “You can just research forever, [but] it’s for kids, how much do I want to burden them?” she said. 

Bean was still working on the book when the pandemic hit. She and her husband moved in with her parents in Wareham, and she spent three years living there finishing it up. 

“I felt this pressure to get it finished … the world seemed to need it more and more,” Bean said. 

The book is now completed, and she’s holding an author meet-and-greet at the Gleason Family YMCA to celebrate, on Monday, April 15 from 12 to 1 p.m. Some advice from YMCA Senior Program Director Lu Brito is featured in the book, and she wanted to do something at the YMCA because of that connection, she said. 

Bean says she’s “on the edge of her seat” to see the book’s reception and whether kids will like it. 

The number one thing she’d want kids — or anyone reading the book — to take away from it?

“We all have brains and nervous systems and all of us have mental health,” she said. “It’s not just for people who are mentally ill… and we can all help each other.”