Without doubt, there are few things in life as agonizing as living with a mental illness. And while those without disorders can easily sympathize, understanding the challenges experienced by sufferers is a different matter entirely. These chilling illustrations, however, attempt to show what life is actually like for those afflicted by just such conditions – and the results are eerily effective.
Shawn Coss is an artist from Akron, Ohio who has worked as an illustrator for seven years. And besides working on the hugely successful web comic Cyanide & Happiness, Coss has also released work independently. In fact, he funded and released his own book via Kickstarter earlier in 2016.
Describing his artistic style as “dark and free,” Coss’ works are characterized by a stark and Gothic-inspired monochromatic beauty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for example, in October 2015 he created a series of pictures based on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, as part of an annual event known in the artistic community as Inktober.
This year, however, Coss wanted to do something completely different, and so he turned to his fans for suggestions. And after one fan broached the idea of mental illness, the artist soon took to the drawing board and began sketching one haunting piece after another.
Since the start of October 2016, then, Coss has been releasing a new artwork every day in accordance with Inktober’s rules. And his first piece – a representation of borderline personality disorder – poignantly encapsulates the feelings of worthlessness and emptiness that sufferers associate with the disease.
Intended as representations of a specific illness, these minimal drawings are vividly expressionistic and hauntingly powerful. Indeed, his follow-up work on insomnia showcases the weariness felt by those with the disorder. With pallid features and pupils reduced to dots, the figure is a chilling totem of endless nights without sleep.
Prior to commencing work on each sketch, Coss spends a considerable amount of time learning about each disorder. In addition, he receives ideas and suggestions from his fans – particularly those who’ve experienced such illnesses.
“What I find most amusing is someone stating I’m way off on a disorder because that person doesn’t necessarily experience the same symptoms,” he told BuzzFeed in October 2016. On the other hand, though, he will “have another person saying it’s spot on.”
On account of the subjective nature of mental illness, then, creating an image that speaks to a universal truth on each disorder can undoubtedly be difficult. Nevertheless, Coss has admitted that the response he’s received from fans has been “overwhelming.”
And besides covering more well-known mental health issues, Coss also draws on less familiar illnesses for inspiration. For example, this vanishing figure represents the Cotard delusion – a rare disorder which gives the sufferer the false belief that they have died.
Indeed, mental health is a serious issue in today’s society – albeit an often overlooked one. According to studies conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2014, 42.5 million adults in the U.S. fall victim to a mental disorder. To put it another way, that’s almost one in five American adults.
And yet despite the alarming spread of mental illness, the subject suffers from a pernicious stigma that often stops people seeking help. As a result, many illnesses are left undiagnosed and made even made worse by neglect. Meanwhile, those brave enough to step forward receive frequent discrimination that makes recovery even harder.
And while on the whole Coss’ work has been greeted enthusiastically, not all reactions have been entirely pleasant. In fact, some of the artist’s followers have accused him of pandering to stigmas associated with these illnesses.
Speaking to BuzzFeed, Coss admitted, “It’s mostly positive reactions. But there are those who feel the need to disrupt the flow and try to accuse of me ‘sensationalizing’ the disorders because of my art style.”
Nonetheless, these illustrations have struck a chord with Coss’ countless fans, and his Facebook page is overflowing with followers voicing their support. Specifically, those unlucky enough to suffer from mental health issues have praised his images for accurately portraying their struggles.
In particular, his illustration on ADHD prompted fan Johanna Orand to commend Coss for his knowledge on the illness. “It’s not just losing things or getting distracted,” she wrote, “it’s constant chaos and indecision… because ultimately you’re pulled in so many directions that you wind up staying in the same place.”
Meanwhile, follower Sigrid Alicia-Dominguez thanked Cross for “bringing attention” to such overlooked concerns. “I hate that there is such a stigma that comes along with mental disorders. Thank you for taking the time to help others understand what people who suffer from these disorders fight every day,” she wrote.
Certainly, Cross seems to appreciate his fans’ adoration, and he often takes the time to connect further with his followers. To this end, he streams each drawing’s creation on Facebook Live to give audiences insight into the creative process. Moreover, each post hammers home the series’ point with the message, “If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask.”
Furthermore, during one of those Facebook Live feeds, Coss admitted that he “didn’t really understand how important this was to people.” However, he has since stated to BuzzFeed that he is “100 percent in support” of people gaining comfort from his work.
“I hope that people can appreciate my creations,” he continued. “Most importantly I hope – if anything – it affects a person on some level. This may be a new venture for me into the world of mental health. Or it’ll vanish into the abyss of the internet.”