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Shawn Coss Creates Creepy Drawings of Mental Health Conditions for Inktober


Every October, artists from around the world challenge themselves, as part of “Inktober,” to create one ink-based illustration for each day of the month. When deciding what to draw this year, Shawn Coss, an Ohio-based illustrator known for his work on the “Cyanide and Happiness” webcomics, turned to his fans for suggestions.

“I was asking my fans for suggestions since last year I did characters from ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ and someone mentioned [mental] illnesses as an idea.” Coss thought the request over, ultimately deciding to commit to drawing one mental health condition per day.

Creepy illustration of bipolar disorder featuring a skeleton like man on his knees shrieking in pain with another creepy figure crouched on his back.

“I have a medical background that has given me some firsthand experiences with some of the more severe and dangerous illnesses and disorders, but I myself am not formally diagnosed with any illness,” Coss told The Mighty. “But I believe that there’s far more undiagnosed out there than diagnosed. Like Cheshire Cat said, ‘We’re all mad.’”

Image of creepy figure staring at an ominous door.

Coss researches two to three conditions at a time, taking an hour to learn about each batch of conditions he plans on drawing. “I’ll start focusing on the symptoms and kind of plan out the concept I want initially,” he said. “Afterwards I’ll start toying with basic figure poses and try to find the most dynamic that will help tell the story of that chosen illness.” Many of his drawing is done over Facebook Live, he said, as he loves being able to interact with his fans.

So far, Coss said, the feedback has blown him away. “Wow this is perfect,” a woman with borderline personality disorder (BPD) commented on the BPD drawing Coss posted on Facebook. “I’ve been suffering with BPD for a while and couldn’t really draw what I felt. What I wanted people to understand. You captured that in black and white. Thank you.”

“People from all over the world have reached out to me to let me know how much the art means to them, and it’s overwhelming hearing some of the heart breaking stories they tell me,” Coss said.

Woman with two skeleton-like ghosts floating around her

His work has faced critique too.

Controversies sparked over the way he’s illustrated obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia, as well as his choice to include autism spectrum disorder in the series.

Coss defended his decision to include autism – which is a neurological difference and not an illness – referencing the way people with autism were treated decades ago. “What many seem to forget is back before we had a lot of these neurological discoveries is that children with autism were considered sick in the head and shipped off to psych wards to undergo treatment,” he said.

 

Coss has also been critiqued for featuring the words “clean, clean, clean” in his drawing of OCD. “With OCD, people jumped on me about the whole cleaning portrayal, stating it’s not what it’s always about,” he said, noting the misconception that all people with OCD have a compulsive need to clean. “I agree, but when you have one image to portray a wide spectrum of symptoms, I wanted to use one that people commonly associate OCD with.”

Illustration of OCD, Creepy figure scratching at chest saying "clean, clean, clean"

Once October is over, Coss plans on turning all of his mental-illness-inspired illustrations into a book, which he hopes to have available for Mental Health Awareness month in May. In the meantime, all of Coss’s Inktober illustrations will be available for purchase on his website at the end of the month.

creature illustrating major depressive disorder, looks like he is on the floor almost melting in pain.

You can see more illustrations and view the rest of the series on Coss’s Facebook page.