Staff Spotlight: Kristen Abell

Name: Kristen Abell

Department: Strategic Marketing and Communications (MCOM)

What do you do at UMKC?:
I am the Web Manager for the UMKC website. Not only do I develop websites, but I also oversee the policy and guidelines around them. I also supervise a team of two other web professionals – a web content strategist and a web developer.

What is your favorite thing about working at UMKC?:
One of the main reasons I have always enjoyed working in higher ed is that we often get to wear a number of different hats. Yes, I’m a web manager, but I also still have ties to student affairs on our campus and participate in some of their events. I get to participate in Diversity Advocates and Staff Council where I get to use some of my other skills. Plus, I love to learn – and what better place to do that than at a university? I recently read a book about being a “multipotentialite” – someone who has varied interests and skills, like me – and higher ed is a great place for this type of person to work.

What are some things you do while you are not at UMKC?:
I read – a lot. And just about every type of book you could imagine. Typically I read about 1 – 2 books a week. And I’m always accepting book recommendations ;).

I also cross stitch – but not your momma’s type of cross stitch. I create a lot of my own patterns and do things like ornaments with quotes from The Princess Bride or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show – not the movie, of course). I also stitch a fair amount of curse words from time to time. And I do a lot of commissioned cross stitch for anyone who is looking for something specific.

I also do web development as a side hustle – although I try to space these projects out so I don’t get too tired of it.

And of course I do a lot of work on The Committed Project, which is an organization I co-founded with a colleague and friend of mine to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness in higher education.

Can you tell us more about The Committed Project?:
The Committed Project started as a one-month blog series for student affairs professionals in May 2014, although if I’m being completely honest, the work started before that. My colleague Sue Caulfield approached me because of a series of blog posts I had shared about my experience with depression. She had the idea for some sort of comic (she’s an amazing artist) detailing some of the struggles of having mental illness while working in student affairs. Together we put out a call for contributors for May – which is Mental Health Awareness Month, hoping for maybe one a week. We ended up with enough for an entire month’s worth of post, which made it clear that we were only scratching the surface. We did another series in May 2015, and then in 2016 created The Committed Project website, where we continue to post stories and create and share resources like our toolkit for higher education professionals. When we launched the website, we expanded it to all professionals in higher education – faculty and staff – as we know the stigma runs deep in academe.

Why/How did you get involved with this work?:
I’ve had depression since I was a teenager and have struggled to manage it over that time. I reached a point in my job as the director of housing here where it was so difficult to get out of bed and make it through the day that I considered hospitalizing myself. But not once did I consider telling my superiors that – it felt way too scary, and I feared I would endanger my position at the university if I did that. That’s when I realized there was a problem in higher ed. We’ve been seeing increasing numbers of students coming through our doors with some type of mental illness, but we haven’t yet done the work of examining our own biases against it – especially mental illness in our peers. So I started sharing my story in the hopes that it would start to open the door on mental illness a little bit and break down some of the stigma around it. If people who knew me could understand that the whole time I had mental illness, maybe they wouldn’t be so afraid of it.

What resources would you like to provide staff members?:
Oh wow – I have a ton! 🙂

– First of all, The Committed Project website has some great stories from other professionals in higher education who experience mental illness. We try to update it when we have time, but it’s our salary-free side hustle, so it’s not as deep as I’d like. Still, there’s a bunch of good information, stories and resources on the site.

– One of my favorite things on the site is our Toolkit, which can be found on the Resources page. Lots of great info in there about different mental illnesses, language and supporting yourself or others experiencing mental illness.

Mental Health America has some incredible resources for people who want to know more about mental illness. I’m hoping to make it to one of their national conferences some day.

– If you have not taken advantage of the RESPOND training on our campus, please do so ASAP! It’s fantastic, and well worth the eight hours.

– I have a billion and one book recommendations, but I won’t list them all here. Suffice it to say if you’re a reader, give me a shout and I’ll happily indulge your requests :).

And finally, a couple of self-promotional resources:

– If you have about 7 minutes and want to know more about what it’s like to experience mental illness in higher ed, take a peek at this video of a presentation I gave a few years ago talking about my own experiences and why I think it’s important for us to stomp out stigma among higher education professionals.

If you are looking for someone to come talk to your office or department about this, feel free to give me a shout. This is a topic that is extremely important to me (obviously), and I’ve presented on it more than a couple of times at this point and would love to spread the good word on our campus.