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Can a Coffee Table Magazine Break the Stigma of Mental Illness?

Can a Coffee Table Magazine Break the Stigma of Mental Illness?

Andrea Grimes

Photo courtesy of Anxy.

Photo courtesy of Anxy.

What if, instead of fluorescent lighting and stale coffee, group therapy came with a shady patio and your favorite cafe’s signature latte? What if, instead of staring at the clock and riding out an hour with strangers in an impersonal, over-air conditioned medical complex, we could explore the things that upset, anger, and confuse us at our own pace with a cat snuggled at our feet? What if that therapy could both fit in your purse and feel as carefully crafted as a designer handbag?

Enter Anxy magazine. “It’s group therapy in print,” says founder and creative director Indhira Rojas, who, along with a team of eight designers, editors, and photographers, has just shipped out the first issues of this physically hefty, visually captivating work of art, literature, and journalism to coincide with May—mental health awareness month.

“It’s really hard to open up the [mental health] conversation with friends and family,” says Rojas, who wanted to build an outlet for a talking about mental illness that felt less transactional than the relationship between a patient and therapist, and more honest than showing a few well-curated cracks in the facade of a young professional’s social media profile.

“A lot of us spend a lot of time pretending everything is ok,” says Rojas. “That is the main reason why, for me, the magazine is important. Just to give people the opportunity to feel it’s OK to bring up [mental health] in conversations, or to actually say where they’re at in life, and not feel like they should be embarrassed or ashamed.”

Rojas leads by example. In her powerful founding story, she talks with arresting frankness about the grief of “transgenerational trauma” that led to her abuse as a child, and, later, her post-traumatic stress and anxiety diagnoses.  

“Most people who know me don’t know anything about these aspects of my life,” writes Rojas, who adapted to, and in some ways masked, her trauma by becoming a highly successful, “get-shit-done” professional.

Before Anxy, Rojas describes being “crazy-making busy” with a teaching job, a design studio, and the launch of a co-working space back home in the Dominican Republic. She sought validation, visibility—anything to keep her inner life noisy and feelings of worthlessness at bay. Exhausted, she eventually offloaded those responsibilities and began a difficult journey of self-care and treatment that led her to the small but sunny Northern California studio that serves as Anxy’s headquarters. From an airy room above a Berkeley bake shop, Rojas is now working to break the silence around what it’s like to live with pain, shame, anxiety, and grief.

That was the core of her pitch to Anxy editor-at-large and former Guardian journalist Bobbie Johnson during a lunch meeting three years ago. Wouldn’t it be great, Rojas mused, if we could talk about mental illness without stigma? To stop having to pretend around the people we love?

Anxy’s mission resonated—to the tune of nearly $60,000 raised through the Kickstarter campaign Rojas built last fall with Johnson. (Johnson is also the founder of the National Magazine Award-winning Matter, which itself grew out of a $140,000 Kickstarter campaign back in 2012.)

But while the Anxy team hails from some of the internet’s best-known content innovators —among them Medium and the San Francisco-centric culture zine the Bold Italic—the magazine itself is only available in a delightful and challenging print package that’s as coffee table-ready as anything lining the shelves at your favorite indie bookshop.

Self-help books aren’t generally known for their aesthetic excellence, and clickbaity listicles about self-care may drive traffic online, but they rarely take a particularly thoughtful approach to the needs of people living with mental illness. Even treatment-focused outlets can do more harm than good with prescriptive quick-fixes and shallow takes on complicated issues. (What’s someone with an anxiety diagnosis supposed to do when “How to Master Your Emotions” doesn’t produce the desired result, Psychology Today? Meanwhile, “Republican or Democrat, We Are All Stressed Out” has all the depth of a shot glass.)

In contrast, Anxy’s first 144 pages explore the complicated realities of living with mental illness through personal essays, interviews, and reported features. At the same time, the magazine’s physical form treats readers with creative respect: Anxy is filled with forceful and often playful typography, striking original photography, and unexpected layouts. It wouldn’t just be at home on any aesthete’s nightstand, it stands out as a model of contemporary magazine design.

Editorially, Anxy isn’t starting small either—the first issue’s theme? Anger. When I meet with Rojas and Johnson, I joke that I could guess why the team might have had that particular emotion in mind during their recent call for submissions in the days and weeks surrounding the inauguration of our 45th president.

“It was totally pre-Trump!” exclaims Johnson, while acknowledging that it’s a question Anxy’s team is anticipating answering more than a few times as the magazine ships out. Rojas even addresses it in the first issue’s founders’ letter, explaining that the focus on anger came about because of the complexity of the emotion, and not a particular geopolitical moment. Anxy’s a biannual publication, anyway, which means their content has to last six months or more—ideally, says Johnson, much more.

“Whether you voted the way you voted because you’re angry, or reacted [to Trump] the way you reacted because you’re angry,” he says, “it’s not about this one moment in time.” Instead, it’s about sitting with the emotion of anger and creating space around that experience and, maybe, discomfort. “Everything in here you could read in a year or five years and it would still have a meaning for you.”

Politics and au courant topics aren’t off limits, though. The first issue features a dispatch from Turkey, where writer Lorena Rios finds that “anger emerges everywhere” as the country grapples with political instability. There’s also a fascinating conversation with novelist Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale recently received a much-lauded prestige TV treatment.

But Anxy’s contributors also confront anger with a combination of openness and intimacy in personal essays that editor-in-chief Jennifer Maerz—who writes in her own #WeAreAnxy essay about her days as a music journalist amid punk scenes rife with substance abuse—says were “very raw and honest” in their early draft stages.

“I’m not going to be light on editing or move away from things I think could be structured better, but I try to provide a lot of positive reinforcement,” says Maerz about the unique editorial challenge of trying not to cause more trauma, more stress, and, well, more anger for contributors baring their private pain on the page. Anxy features notable writers and photographers, but part of its mission is to become a sounding board for people who have little to no experience sharing their own deeply private experiences with mental illness, let alone writing about it in a magazine.

“This is just a beautiful object that you could be in a coffee shop reading, and you wouldn’t feel embarrassed. You wouldn’t feel like you’re highlighting your stress levels.”
— Bobbie Johnson

Anxy has convened a group of therapists, mental health professionals, and advisors who lend their expertise on the inevitably thorny issues the magazine tackles. Rojas checks in with members of the group frequently, making sure the magazine stays true to its mission and soliciting suggestions on balancing real people’s experiences with expert voices.

Natasha Vianna, an Anxy advisor and founder of the #NoTeenShame campaign targeted at breaking down stigma around teen parenting and young families, says she sees Anxy’s approach to mental illness as a vital intervention in the cycle of shame around mental health. It’s one that dovetails beautifully with her own work with teens and young adults, she says.

“Stigma impacts so many people in so many different ways, and oftentimes those ways intersect,” says Vianna. With #NoTeenShame, Vianna sees many teen moms experiencing postpartum depression, for example, “but because of stigma around mental health issues, and fear of being hyper-surveilled,” they’re afraid to seek treatment lest they have their children taken away.

 “Until Anxy magazine was coming out,” she says, “I didn’t think I had an opportunity to really say, ‘This is how they’re connected.’”

Anxy’s stigma-busting mission translated into a vision for a print magazine that, Rojas says, would “be an object in the real world, you can bump into it, have it on the coffee table, carry it around.” Unlike a dorky self-help tome or a wonky medical journal, says Johnson, Anxy was envisioned as a real-life signal of inclusiveness to others in the reader’s world: “This is just a beautiful object that you could be in a coffee shop reading, and you wouldn’t feel embarrassed. You wouldn’t feel like you’re highlighting your stress levels.”

After Anxy’s Kickstarter campaign took off in 2016, it garnered the blessing of celebrity therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky, who asked his Facebook followers to fund the magazine. However they found the project, hundreds of donors and social media subscribers inundated the nascent staff with emails about their own experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, suicide, and depression, but also with hopeful encouragement, anticipating a community built around eliminating the personal and public stigma that can prevent people from getting treatment and from sharing their experiences with loved ones. That’s where Anxy’s digital component will come in, providing a space for readers to connect with each other the way they connected with the Anxy staff in the early days of the magazine.

“Someone would never come up and talk to me about their schizophrenic mom at a party,” says Maerz, “But because they felt like Anxy was a platform that makes those kinds of conversations feel ok, they know they’re not going to be judged if they discuss those things with me.”

Maerz describes the future of Anxy as a magazine that lives on “a couple of levels.” One, the print publication, and the other, a combination of social media and live events that connect readers with each other, rather than just publishing a website to “feed” with listicles and essays.

“We’re trying to be thoughtful about the brand and the whole ecosystem of what we’re creating, and not say we’re going to be posting articles ‘x’ times a day,” says Maerz.

The whole Anxy team shares Maerz’s approach, being careful to be generous and understanding with their fellow staffers—all of whom worked on the magazine, as Maerz described it, as a “side hustle” to their day jobs.

"Assistant Editor Katie MacBride (far left) with Rojas,  Maerz, and  Johnson (right). Photo by Michelle Le, courtesy Anxy

"Assistant Editor Katie MacBride (far left) with Rojas,  Maerz, and  Johnson (right). Photo by Michelle Le, courtesy Anxy

By their nature, newsrooms are not silent centers of sedate contemplation, and neither are journalists particularly predisposed to clocking out early—the thrill of a scoop and the threat of a deadline make many of us round-the-clock creatures fueled by coffee and power naps. If I wanted to improve my, or anyone else’s, mental health, I told Maerz, I’m not sure starting a magazine would be my first move. But Anxy took a deliberately counterintuitive approach not just to the modern journalism model, but to start-up culture in general by not demanding team members work until they drop to demonstrate their commitment to the project.

“We’ve been really good about boundaries,” says Maerz, who moved from San Francisco to Portland amid some of the magazine’s heaviest-lifting days. She and Rojas discussed their philosophy from the very beginning: “If we need to step back, that’s how it’s going to be.”

And since Anxy simply can’t be a place that drives its editors, designers, and contributors to the brink, Maerz makes sure to check in with other staffers, taking on and abdicating duties as needed. “The way we relate to each other really sets that tone,” she says.

But even as the Anxy team transitions into this restrained support mode for the anger issue, the next magazine is already in its early stages. Rojas says Anxy #2’s theme will be— wait for it—workaholism.

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