Franklin O’Toole: "My new way of looking at things keeps me happy, motivated and hopeful"

Franklin O'Toole

As part of our in-depth look at the effects of mental illness on illustrators, California-based illustrator and designer Franklin O'Toole opens up about his experiences.

Tell us a bit about your experience with mental illness.

"I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder five years ago and with counselling discovered that it has been plaguing me as early as six years old. With this disorder, it is easy for the mind to blow things out of proportion. For example: I have been called a failure by several people in my life, so that word has really worn on me like a scar. My last year of college a professor told me that I was a 'B' rate artist which did break my spirit. Words not only hurt, but can have a lasting impact with my type of depression disorder."

How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being an illustrator?

"I started out studying painting. I suffered a horrible breakdown my first year in college from pressure with multiple classes and work, I felt that I wasn't doing as well as the other students. One day I started crying in class. Completely broke down. I believe my depression and poor image of myself as an artist put up a major block to my progression to paint better. I wasn't diagnosed at the time and never received proper treatment for the breakdown. By my last year of college, I was struggling to get out of bed, was showing up late for class and struggled to produce any work. After being told I was 'B' rate material, I was crushed. At the end of the year I produced only a few small drawings and left school with no portfolio."

Where, who, or what organisation did you go to for support?

"After school I took a regular job to get by, but continued taking classes once a week. I found a wonderful teacher named Hope Riley whose teaching really improved my drawing skills. I began to feel hopeful. I don't think I ever felt that before. Through her teaching I discovered that I loved to draw more than paint and was even able to talk to her about some of my depression. I was still suffering from it. At one point, it became very dark. I feared that I would always work in retail because I just wasn't good enough and had trouble finishing drawings I had started. Thoughts of suicide began to pop up in my head."

"I rarely talked about my struggle with depression because others around me always made it seem like a character flaw.

"I don't think many people know how depression works. My grandmother got me to a doctor who diagnosed me. I started taking medication, but my doctor was clear that meds were not the complete answer to depression, especially when it came to self image. I started seeing a therapist who told me I needed to change my thinking patterns to reverse all the negative thoughts that have plagued me. At the same time I was lucky to discover my love for illustration and graphic design.

"So with changing my thought patterns, I also changed my career path. I began taking classes at Art Center at Night and with Mike Stinson of TypeEd. His teaching has built my confidence where it wasn't before.

"I love type, graphic forms and problem solving. My therapist was glad that I had found what I loved to do but also encouraged me to enjoy the small things in life. I like to walk with my dog and spend time with my Grandmother. These things take me out of myself and not focus on the negative thoughts."

Do you feel having a healthy mindset will be an ongoing journey?

"I still struggle and some days are harder than others. But with positive thinking, I enjoy creating illustrations and graphic design. I am finishing projects, planning to show work at conferences and go out for job interviews. My depression doesn't control me anymore like it once did. It is not an easy job to change your thinking patterns. Seeing a therapists and having two supportive teachers was a real blessing.

"Many people don't know that they are feeding their own depression by being scared to talk to someone, ask for help, and fostering negative thought patterns. Now that I am embarking on a new illustration/design career, my medicine and thought exercises are helping to tackle the ups and downs of the business. I've already had a few bumps in freelancing as any new designer does. But my new way of looking at things keeps me happy, motivated and hopeful."

Franklin is part of a group of illustrators – Ben O’Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator), Tobias HallJamie LawsonSydney LovellJimi MackaySharmelan MurugiahCharlene Chua and Elle Jackson – who’ve shared their stories during Mental Health Awareness Week, with the purpose of providing insight and encouragement to someone who may be unsure on how to deal with their own mental health issues.

If you're experiencing feelings of mental illness, here are a few links to helplines and charities:

Mind – UK mental health charity that provides urgent help, advice on treatment, and sources of support
Mental health helplines suggested by the NHS – including Depression alliance, Men’s Health charity and OCD UK
Samaritans – A 24/7 helpline and charity providing emotional support for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, struggling to cope or in distress 
Rethink – UK mental health charity providing information and services for anyone affected by mental illness 
Anxiety UK – charity for people with anxiety. Many on our staff and volunteer team have personal experiences of anxiety
Bipolar UK – charity for people bipolar, their families and their carers

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