Drawing out the pain: Artist uses cartoons to fight depression

Winnipeg artist Asia Mills's rabbits may be depressed — but they're actually a way of helping her manage her own struggles with mental illness and make a connection with thousands of others.

Asia Mills started drawing Depressed Rabbits to shed sadness, but the cartoons now have global following

Asia Mills illustrates rabbits battling depression as a means of coping with her mental health struggles. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

This story was originally published on April 24, 2019.

Even rabbits can be depressed.

At least, they can in the world of Winnipeg artist Asia Mills — but they're actually a way of helping her manage her own struggles with mental illness, and make a connection with thousands of others.

She's the creator of Depressed Rabbits — a series of cartoons she's created where the rabbits represent the depression that she lives with. The illustrations reflect her views on the mental illness she struggles with.

Laying those thoughts down on paper, she says, is a release.

"Just gotta get the rabbits out of my head," she said.

Asia Mills's illustrated rabbits give voice to some of the dark thoughts in her own mind, but she finds a release in putting those thoughts down on paper. (Asia Mills)

"I go into a downward spiral and I feel a lot of pain, and I feel regret and shame. I stop myself and think, 'That's not good,' and I run and grab my sketchbook and my marker, and I get that thing out of there."

The rabbits have taken on their own life online, becoming something of an internet meme. The Depressed Rabbits Facebook page has almost 10,000 followers, and her Instagram page boasts more than 1,000.

Depressed Rabbits often showcases a dark sense of humour. (Asia Mills)

A battle with addiction

Before creating the Depressed Rabbits project, Mills was deep in the grips of an addiction to crystal methamphetamine. Emaciated, rowdy and hopeless, she was near rock bottom.

"It was hell. I didn't really realize how bad it was. I was at the deepest point of my drug addiction, and I thought that the drugs were the only thing keeping me happy. It was my only way for survival."

Watch Winnipeg artist Asia Mills create 'Depressed Rabbits' memes, that reflect her own battle with depression. 5:39

Sobriety came organically, Mills says, through "accidental happiness."

"It's very difficult, but I think that constantly reminding me of the beauty that is out there — like, it's a wonderful world. There's so many things to do, so many people to see. With drugs, I couldn't experience that."

Depressed Rabbits often touches on addiction and mental health issues. (Asia Mills)

Her illustrations feature two rabbits. Mills describes them as a brotherly pair with an awkward relationship — and they each present a different voice.

"I have the younger rabbit telling me that this is so painful, and there's nothing we can do about it and everything sucks," Mills says.

"And then my older rabbit reminds me, well, everything does suck, but how do we make it suck a little less? Younger rabbit doesn't want to hear that, though."

Whether people see the illustrations as just a meme or something more serious, 'I just hope people enjoy,' says Mills. (Asia Mills)

They often express heartbreaking thoughts, like "Sometimes I feel so alone."

Other times, they have messages of hope: "I know you're sad. I am too," says the rabbit in one illustration.

"But now is a really stupid time to give up."

Asia Mills works on a recent Depressed Rabbits cartoon. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Mills expected a few friends to follow along when she began drawing Depressed Rabbits, but one year later, she has thousands of fans, from as far away as Europe and South America.

They find a piece of their own depression in the art, she says.

"It's unreal. There's a large fan base, and sometimes I'll just look at the number and realize those are individual people," Mills said.

"A lot of us are in the same boat, and I feel that this growth should be a reminder not only to myself, but to everyone else involved, that we're not alone in this."

She appreciates the attention, but the large audience adds a sense of pressure to the project, she says. She often struggles with making sure she's sending the right message, and making sure it stays true to her own ideas.

The Depressed Rabbits cartoons have been seen by thousands of people online. (Asia Mills)

"Even now that I've put out more serious discussions on mental health, I will occasionally put out the lighthearted rabbit that's having a goofy time. If someone looks at my art and thinks, 'Well, this is just a meme,' that's OK, because people like memes, and that's fine," Mills said.

"If someone looks at my art and thinks, 'This is a serious topic, and this should be taken seriously,' then good, because I want to be taken seriously. Either way, I just hope people enjoy."

Working her way out of a meth addiction, Mills is trying to rediscover her personality. Being recognized as "the rabbit girl" isn't always easy for her.

"People always expect me to be this bright, bubbly person full of laughter. Sometimes I'm just not feeling that way. It's hard for me to be comfortable when people have those expectations.

"I just want to be Asia."

Asia Mills sees her illustrations as a reflection of herself. (Asia Mills/Bryce Landry)

Today, Mills isn't sure if Depressed Rabbits is still a way to exorcise her dark thoughts or if, in fact, it's stifling her personal growth.

She often thinks of stepping away from the project altogether.

So far, however, as Mills continues to grow in her sobriety and manage her depression, the rabbits are along for the ride.

"Is my depression gone? No. But I do feel that I'm better, and continuing to grow.

"The rabbits are my depression, and they'll always be there, but you can tame a rabbit."

'Just gotta get the rabbits out of my head,' says Mills. (Asia Mills)

About the Author

Colton started his career in Saskatoon focusing on live sound production, but quickly found a love for radio as a community radio DJ. He joined CBC Manitoba's Information Radio as an audio technician in 2017. He's enjoying his new home in Winnipeg, eagerly exploring the city's history, local music and film and hearing great Manitoba stories from the community.