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Eileen Kelly Going Mental health podcast sex education
Courtesy of Eileen Kelly. Photography Bella M Lucio

Eileen Kelly on Going Mental and living with BPD

The podcast host opens up about inpatient treatment, and explains why she wants to bring awareness to the everyday realities of mental illness

Three years ago when the world suddenly hit a standstill, the unforeseen solitude that came with a worldwide lockdown left an eerie silence in most of our lives. But for Eileen Kelly, stillness and isolation had been a part of her reality for several months already. In the winter of 2019, the sex educator turned podcast host decided to take a sabbatical leave of absence, announcing to her 400K followers that while her career had “blossomed in ways she could’ve never imagined”, she had been operating as “a very high functioning sick person”.

For the following five months, Kelly spent time as an inpatient in a woman’s ward at McLean Hospital – a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut most famously known as the hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Stripped away from her usual fast-paced life, with more intense lockdown precautions due to hospital regulations, she watched the world fall apart from the confines of her hospital room. “I didn’t have access to a phone but we could watch TV. I wasn’t fully cut off from the world so I knew what was going on,” she says, thinking back to that time. 

Unexpectedly the timing of treatment turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Kelly as the slow-paced environment that came with 2020 helped her ease back into life after treatment. “I think so much of my anxiety while I was in there was this fear that everything moves so fast and my friends were going to move on without me and wondering whether I screwed my career by going away,” she reflects from her apartment in New York City. “I had this anxiety and kind of FOMO almost, and so discharging into peak COVID I think allowed me a saving grace to [realise] everyone’s lives were on pause. It wasn’t just mine, so I didn’t feel so alienated and so different”.

Prior to checking into treatment, Kelly had dedicated all of her teens and early twenties to growing an online following through her blog Killer And A Sweet Thang. If you grew up using Tumblr during the mid-2010s, chances are you followed her or knew someone who did. Starting off as a sex-education blog, KAAST was born from her lack of exposure to conversations about sex and relationships in her conservative Catholic school. Quickly it amassed over 300,000 followers and became a digital safe space for young people to find answers to questions they were possibly too frightened to ask someone. “Originally when I started Killer And A Sweet Thang I wrote everything myself and I just only talked about my own experience, it was kind of like just an individual blog. Very quickly I realised I was sharing such a narrow perspective”. Over time the blog grew to over 100 young writers sharing their varied thoughts on all things to do with sex education. With the lessons and knowledge she gained from McLean, when she was discharged she set out with a mission to take the same approach with KAAST and apply it to dispelling myths surrounding mental illness. It was then that her latest project Going Mental was born.  

With topics submitted mainly by her listeners, Going Mental is a podcast where Kelly invites a wide selection of guests to examine the realities of mental health. Given her history with KAAST, Kelly often draws parallels between mental and sexual health awareness. “I feel like they’re both extremely intimate topics and they’re the most natural, basic things in the world,” she explains. “Sexual health, mental health. This is a part of a healthy system that makes a well-rounded person and just by you’re talking about it, you’re giving them the tools to then make informed decisions about their health”. 

“Help is available. Help is out there. You can change your life,” – Eileen Kelly

With a wide range of topics, her episodes explore themes like diet culture, addiction, female genital mutilation, sex work, motherhood and hoarding through the lens of mental health. Her lineups include the likes of Chloe Cherry, Dita Von Teese, Emily Ratajkowski and Caroline Carroway. Aware that access to therapy is a privilege not many have, Kelly also often invites medical professionals, some from McLean, to offer their expertise. “In the age of social media and TikTok, there’s so much misinformation spread online so I value finding professionals who have the credentials”. 

Other guests however, such as Jeffree Star and Rachel Dolezal – the latter of whom she recounts as the “most difficult conversation” – sit on the more uncomfortable side of the lineup. Rather than an attempt to cosign their controversies, she sees the conversations more as an opportunity to have uncomfortable yet open conversations. “I think I also go into episodes and interviews with my own biases. I’ve had a lot of people who are controversial and I’ve had cancelled people on my show. Sometimes I go in being like, ‘Oh, I think this person is kind of like icky’, or I don’t agree with how they put themselves out into the world,” Kelly says. “Then I sit down and we have a conversation and they tell me about their childhood trauma, or X, Y, and Z, and I think holy shit you’re a human, and you make mistakes. As long as you kind of own up to those mistakes and take accountability, who am I to judge you?”

No stranger to a little controversy, last year Kelly dropped merch including graphics sweatshirts with ‘Lexapro’, ‘Wellbutrin’ and ‘Zoloft’ printed on them. While some responded to the garments questioning why she was ‘promoting’ and ‘glamourising’ pharmaceuticals, the intention was to take a light-hearted approach to a widely misunderstood topic. “They’re a conversation starter. It’s not meant to be literal. I just felt like people wear the universities that they went to so proudly and I think it also there’s like an element of humour that makes mental health more easy to digest,” Kelly says. “It’s just such a serious topic and there are moments with my friends and I where just having a laugh about it makes it so much easier”.

Alongside the podcast episodes with guests, Kelly also has solo episodes unpacking her own experiences and perspectives on different topics including her journey to finding answers about her struggles. While conversations around mental health are arguably not as taboo as they once were, the topic of personality disorders remains some of the most stigmatised both socially and among medical professionals. When attempting to gain more knowledge on Borderline Personality Disorder in order to support a close friend, Kelly had a “light bulb moment” as she found herself relating to the information she was gathering. 

Categorised as the borderline between neurosis and psychosis, Borderline Personality Disorder is a condition that affects emotional regulation and the way one interacts with themselves and the world. The nine criteria for diagnosis include fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, impulsive and self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, identity disturbance, explosive anger, extreme emotional swings and chronic feelings of emptiness and dissociation. At the time of her admission to McLean, Kelly exhibited nine out of nine of the symptoms. Despite meeting the criteria, it took Kelly over four years to receive her diagnosis – a journey she described as a “wild goose chase”. 

“I did the intake. No doctor just sat me down and said I think you have this. I really had to go out of my way to be like, ‘Hey, can I do an intake? I think I have this thing. Can we talk about it?’” she explains. After receiving her diagnosis, she returned to her old therapist to question whether, over the years of being under her treatment, she ever suspected Kelly could have BPD. To her surprise, her former therapist disclosed that she had suspected it but did not want to tell her. “I was so mad,” Kelly says. “When I got to McClean my new therapist was like I don’t think you should blame the old therapist, there’s so much misinformation not just out there, but so much stigma in the medical community with BPD. She [probably] thought if she gave you the diagnosis, it’s actually a life ruiner or worse for you.”

According to a study published by Cambridge University Press, an average of 70 per cent of people diagnosed with BPD have at least one suicide attempt over the course of their lifetime and 8-10 per cent die by suicide. Due to the concerns of liability and the fact that it is a fairly recent diagnosis (it was only recognised in the DSM in the 80s), sufferers of the condition are often dissuaded from seeking an official diagnosis. In addition, misinformation online only further perpetuates the stigma that Kelly is intentionally attempting to dismantle. “I’ll just read these things where it’s like they’re crazy or they’re unstable and I’m like, no, no, no if you actually just sat down for an hour, I could show you the science of it,” she says. “They say genetics loads the gun and then the environment pulls the trigger. Most people who are diagnosed with BPD, or honestly, any personality disorder have a genetic predisposition to this.”

Having recently joined McLean’s Women’s Leadership Council, Kelly is on a mission to take her advocacy work a step beyond her platform and audience. Her first step is joining forces with the hospital to help train professionals in different modalities in treating patients with BPD and the struggles many of her listeners deal with. “I feel like I’m living proof that if you get the proper treatment, this is a treatable illness,” Kelly says. “I will always have traits and if I get really stressed out or if I’m not doing well I pop back into that diagnosis, I will always have it; but in terms of meeting the criteria to the naked eye, I don’t anymore”.

Aside from her ultimate aim to provide a nuanced perspective on mental health, Kelly is keen to ensure people still remain hopeful regarding their recovery. “Help is available. Help is out there. You can change your life,” she said. “I think in 5-10 years, the state of mental health is going to be very different than it is today and I’m really excited for that.”

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