When I met Caitie Gutierrez, founder and curator of The Bumblefly Effect, I experienced a feeling in my stomach that was difficult to pinpoint. It was different to the usual malaise I feel when meeting new people; the gradual tightening of my chest, the tingling in my fingers, the inner voice telling me their first impressions will inevitably be underwhelming. Those palpable expressions of anxiety collided with something rather foreign when it comes to my social interactions; hope.
In our emails, I had discussed things I would usually never dream of mentioning when I’m about to meet someone professionally. However, The Bumblefly Effect is an online community harnessing the power of creative expression to normalise mental illness, the vicissitudes of emotion and the spectrum of behaviours that go along with it; so I felt comfortable alluding to my own history of mental illness. More than that, I felt personally invested in The Bumblefly Effect even before my conversation with Caitie had begun.
Image source: Bob/ Basha Civil (@no.1/filthwizard)
ALEXANDRA: What inspired you to start The Bumblefly Effect?
CAITIE: I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) at 15 and depression at 19. It has been a long road but I am now at a place where I accept my diagnosis, and am tired having to mask my symptoms.
Society has a long way to go when it comes to accepting the fluidity of human emotion and awareness, and that our live-to-work system isn’t a realistic option for every person who struggles with mental illness. We shouldn't have to feel embarrassed or ashamed because we are not as monetarily productive as society deems acceptable. Productivity should not equate to self-worth.
I don't think it's a coincidence that many people who struggle with mental illness are creatives. Any famous artist you can think of has had their painful personal lives romanticised. I want to make it easier for artists of all kinds, and anyone who has a mental illness, to make a living and live a fulfilling life on their terms. You don’t need to be a professional creative, or even consider yourself creative to join The Bumblefly Effect. There is a big overlap between creative and mental health communities and I hope that bringing them together and working to reduce stigma will help decrease suicide rates.
Image source: Amy Viña
ALEXANDRA: You mentioned that productivity should not equate to self-worth. Why do you think feelings of self-worth are often so intimately linked to how productive we feel?
CAITIE: I definitely think they are symptoms of the hyper-capitalist society we've all become accustomed to. The social pressures and the pressures we put on ourselves are a result of us feeling that we have no other choice but to accept the confines of this system and of our habituation.
ALEXANDRA: In what ways do you think the stigma around mental illness persists, especially in creative communities?
CAITIE: Creative communities in general are more accepting of mental illness because art is self-expression. However, people who are open about their mental illness can face discrimination not only from society as a whole, but from the people closest to them; their families, friends, or partners. Mental illness largely circles around emotionality, which is something felt and not seen. It exists on a spectrum, with a surplus of symptoms and signs. Some of these symptoms are deemed as unacceptable behaviours and instead of treating them as symptoms of an illness, people are shut out and called "crazy." I think learning empathy goes a long way here. Empathy is vital for survival.
Art Director: Pangea Kali Virga. Photographer: Elizabeth Stemmler. Models: Sydney Sahr and Robert Kawan.
ALEXANDRA: From your personal experience of growing up in New York and now living in Sydney, do you feel stigma is manifested differently in the two cities?
CAITIE: American society in general is more career-oriented than anything else. We are expected to go to university straight out of high school, choose a major and get a degree, get a job, and work. Work comes before most things in New York. While there are many opportunities, there are even more people, so it is a battle to find your place in a niche (especially for creatives). I feel Sydney, whilst still busy, values socialisation and relationships as well as career. Taking a gap year after high school is encouraged, so too is travel. It is not looked down upon to take a breath here and there; that has been the biggest difference for me.
There are, however, similarities that come into play, such as social hierarchy. Mental health organisations in both New York and Sydney are very white-washed regardless of the diversity of both cities. Marginalised groups (queer communities, Indigenous communities, People of Colour) are more likely to experience a mental illness, yet less likely to receive the proper healthcare needed to combat it. And there is still a struggle with representation and appropriation in the arts. Both cities have the potential to overcome this, and I'm hoping The Bumblefly Effect speeds up this process.
ALEXANDRA: How do you think creative practices can be cathartic for those for those who suffer from mental illness?
CAITIE: There are so many different ways creativity can become a healing outlet for those who suffer from mental illness. You are using all of your senses to redirect negative thoughts or compulsions or impulses to inflict harm on or within yourself. You can expel your strong emotions by focusing on what you are creating. At the end of the day, you are conveying something that almost anyone can relate to. Suffering is a universal human experience and I think being able to relate to each other on that level makes room for greater understanding and empathy.
Image source: Danni Fuentes (@dannifuentesart)
ALEXANDRA: How does your community help minimise the continued stigma around mental illness?
CAITIE: I want to normalise the discussion around our mental health. Life is fucking hard, even more so for marginalised groups and sensitive people. Each individual person has their own set of emotions and ways they view and experience life, so it makes sense that everyone has an individual energy and level of productivity. And that is okay!
We don't expect someone with any other chronic or terminal illness to feel the pressure of productivity. Mental illness can be chronic, and it can be terminal; so why is it still dismissed? This community gives people who have experienced or are currently experiencing these struggles a space where they can talk about it. I don't want people to have to hide or feel silenced anymore.
ALEXANDRA: The Bumblefly Effect uses social media to create an online community. How do you think social media can negatively impact those with mental illness and how does your work challenge this?
CAITIE: When you're scrolling through social media platforms, most of the time you're only getting everyone's "highlight reel”. When a person shares negative emotions by typing out some long-winded rant on their Facebook status, most are quick to roll their eyes and or simply unfollow that person. It is not healthy to shut down negative feelings. Humans are emotional creatures, and there is such a wide range of emotions to be felt. Media and society portray happiness as if it is the only "normal" emotion. This affects our mental health to the point that if someone feels suicidal, they may not want to burden others with this all-consuming emotion. Even if they do, it is not always met with compassion or empathy.
The Bumblefly Effect challenges this by creating a space where it is encouraged to share wide range of emotions. If you have a bad day, or something has happened to you, or you're just feeling downright shitty, you can share it with The Bumblefly Effect and be met with people who are willing to carry that with or for you. People share their creativity, coping methods, similar experiences, and solidarity. I think utilising social media as a tool to explore each other's darker, less-desired emotions offers a way of working through them instead of against them. People have even contacted each other through The Bumblefly Effect and have begun real-life friendships. Seeing a community come together this way has been truly inspiring, and has positively impacted my own mental health.
Image source: Caitie Gutierrez
ALEXANDRA: How is The Bumblefly Effect an example of community psychology, and why do you think community psychology is important?
CAITIE: The art shared publicly through The Bumblefly Effect originally stemmed from a secret Facebook group I started for my friends back at home in the states. My community on Long Island has been experiencing a mental health and substance abuse crisis, and an unsettling amount of young people are dying from mental health and drug-related issues. It is also an extremely creative community, and I have seen a lot of talent come out of it that I want to nurture.
Community psychology is an area of psychology exploring the reciprocal relationship between individuals, communities and how they relate to each other. It focuses on empowerment, social justice, diversity, individual wellness, and citizen participation.
I think community psychology is especially important considering today's political climate. The World Health Organisation states that community mental health services are more effective, lessen social exclusion, and are likely to have less possibilities for the neglect and violations of human rights that are often encountered in mental hospitals and settings. Community psychologists are often advocates for equality and policies that allow for the wellbeing of all people, particularly marginalised populations. If more people create spaces like The Bumblefly Effect in their own communities, we can collectively improve the future of mental healthcare.
Image source: Christie Begnell (@meandmyed.art)
ALEXANDRA: How do you become involved with The Bumblefly Effect?
CAITIE: Reach out to me! We accept creativity of all types: visual arts, music, writing, photography, film, dance. You name it, I want to see it and share it. You can direct message our social media accounts, though I do prefer e-mail because I think it helps people feel more inclined to share their whole story.
ALEXANDRA: What are your plans for the future of The Bumblefly Effect?
CAITIE: We are working on creating a platform for creatives to sell and/or advertise their work, with some of the profits going towards mental health research. We also see the potential for events in the future, so keep an eye out!
Image source: Dannie Fuentes (@dannifuentesart)
After an interview, I sometimes involuntarily replay my “performance” and appraise it with prodigious self-criticism. This time, however, what Caitie mentioned regarding the problematic relationship between productivity and self-worth struck me deeply. The haze my anxiety often brings figuratively lifted, if only for a moment. It was clear to me that I, a supposedly “high functioning” woman with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and clinical depression, value productivity much more than I like to admit. Even at my own expense. Even when, intellectually, I don’t want to remain a prisoner of my conditioning.
The Bumblefly Effect is necessary for me, a queer femme white woman with the privilege of being able to access rebated psychological support. How vital is it then for those who cannot afford mental healthcare, who are not represented in the media’s depictions of what a mentally unwell person looks like, or who don’t feel comfortable to approach certain mental health practitioners without the possibility of racism, transphobia or homophobia looming over their heads?
To become part of The Bumblefly Effect, follow their Instagram handle @thebumbleflyeffect or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image source: Raj Panda (@rajpanda)