Conversation around mental illness can be awkward. Even, evidently, for the experts. “I still get a bit nervous or worried when someone I really like in my life is unwell,” admits clinical psychologist Sam Booker. “What can I say? Will I say the wrong thing? Will I be unhelpful?” she continues. “But you know what’s probably worse? Knowing someone is unwell and not doing anything at all. Just pretending it’s not there and ignoring it altogether.”
With one in five Aussies suffering some form of mental illness each year, it’s not a subject to skirt around. But the card game is quiet in this category, as Sam and sister Trudy, a graphic designer, discovered. “There were so many brilliant cancer-related cards available. Such as the wonderful ‘F**k Cancer’ card, or the ‘If cancer was a man, I’d kick him in the balls’, up to the sympathetically appropriate ‘Sorry about your tit’.”
Such was not the case for psychiatric disorders.
“When we first googled ‘mental illness card’ we found something quite disturbing – a card with a picture of a sticky tape dispenser. And the words – ‘Put yourself back together!’” says Sam, who’s dealt with depression firsthand. “Hope Street Cards was really just about filling that gap in the market.”
Launched during Mental Health Month in October last year, Sam and Trudy’s line of frank, funny cards help us say “sorry to hear you brain is sick” (one of them actually does). Each card sold gifts its giver information about mental illness and how to best support someone experiencing a psychiatric disorder, and sends a shiny dollar to the Black Dog Institute.
Here’s how the Bangalow-based sisters kicked off Hope Street Cards, and some much-needed conversation:
Sam, when did you first have the idea for Hope Street Cards?
A couple of years ago the son of a close friend attempted suicide and I felt at a bit of a loss as to how to show my support. I was able to ask a lot of questions about the situation… but as a friend I wanted her to know that I cared and that I was thinking of her. So I joked with another friend that Hallmark should release a “I’m so sorry your child tried to kill himself” card. But it really wasn’t funny at all. When we did a bit of academic research we found some interesting stuff too. Only one in four people who have experienced a mental health issue will receive a get well card during their illness, despite 80 per cent of these individuals reporting that a card would have been beneficial to their recovery.
How did it get off the ground?
We just started asking people lots and lots of questions. We asked our lawyer friends for IP advice and our accountant friends for bookkeeping tips. Trudy went out and asked some of our most favourite independent greeting card producers if she could interview them and they were incredibly forthcoming and supportive and provided us with some of the most valuable information on how to get started. I did a short online small business course. The other thing we’ve done is read Collective Hub since the beginning. It’s been a constant source of inspiration and motivation.
Who comes up with the designs?
For the actual cards, I come up with the words or ‘copy’ and send it to Trudy who creates all of the illustrations and designs. A lot of our other ideas are much more collaborative. Things like the #complimentbombing campaign where we got volunteers from the Hope Street community to leave compliment cards anywhere they liked in the lead-up to World Compliment Day was a really collaborative idea over a Skype call one day.
What does your background in psychology bring to the business?
One of the standout learnings from my work in clinical psychology is that having a sense of connection with others, feeling loved, accepted and as if one belongs is one of, if not the, most fundamental human needs… And we know that social connection improves physical health and psychological well-being. Our vision for Hope Street Cards is based purely on this need for connection.
How does your personal experience with a psychiatric disorder play out in Hope Street Cards?
I’ve had three episodes of major depressive disorder now, so statistically this means that there’s about an 80 per cent chance that I will experience another episode. The management of my mental health is always going to be my priority. Trudy knows that I won’t read text messages, pick up the phone or respond to emails after 10pm because my sleep patterns are regular as clockwork and really important. Also, we’ve got some really great ideas for things that we’d love to get started on straight away but ensuring that we both have enough fun and play time is too important, so at times the great ideas will just have to wait patiently.
You’ve used humour in approaching the subject of mental health, why take this tact?
Because it’s an excellent conversation starter and stigma buster. And mental health issues can be really funny. Some of my biggest belly laughs have happened when I’ve been in hospital for depression and in a group session we’ve noticed something really absurd about our own conditions. To enable appropriate support though, we’ve been really aware of the language we’ve used in all of our materials. Things like never referring to someone as their disorder, but as a person ‘experiencing’ a particular disorder. These sorts of things are really powerful in assisting the individual in their level of control over their recovery and disorder. Also, things like “get well soon” may not even be appropriate if someone is experiencing a chronic, relapsing condition.
Trudy, what has your experience of supporting Sam brought to the business?
There was so much I didn’t know, so my role is to bring my opinion to the table – what information or support or assistance would have helped me when Sam was unwell? Sometimes Sam can get really wordy and nerdy with the message she is trying to get across. And for obvious reasons her focus can be on supporting the experience of the individual with the diagnosis. I like to remind her that we’re not all psychologists, and that the process of providing someone with support or giving someone a card involves two people – the person experiencing the mental illness and their supporter.
What do you hope your business will do for people who may be struggling?
We hope it helps people feel connected to someone. Mental illness can be so isolating. We would like Hope Street Cards to be able to let people know they’re not alone and they’re loved.