Psychiatric Tales, by Darryl Cunningham, for Non-Fiction Monday

After reading a review at Comics Worth Reading, I added Psychiatric Tales, by Darryl Cunningham, to my (too long) list of library books. I am fascinated by explorations of the workings (and not working) of the mind, and very much wanted to see for myself Cunningham's exploration of mental illness, presented in graphic novel form.

Front and center, Cunningham makes it clear that he has a purpose in creating his book--it "is intended to be a stigma-busting book. This is needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remain widespread in society" (page ix). In his compassionate portrayals of those suffering from various forms of mental illness, he succeeds in making the point that victims of these illnesses remain People, that they can (sometimes) be helped through medical care, and that they are not to blame for the symptoms of their illness.

All but one of the eleven stories that comprise this book stem from Cunnigham's experiences training to be a mental health nurse; the exception is the author's look at his own struggle with mental illness. Dementia, self-harm, depression, anti-social personality disorder, suicide, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are covered in accounts of the author's experience working with people affected by these. His stories aren't at an Oliver Sachs-ian level of intricate detail, but enough is there to makes it possible to feel the fundamental humanity of each of the people one encounters here. A chapter on people with mental illness who have enriched our lives underscores this point.

Most powerful, though, is the final chapter of the book, in which the author shares his story of crippling anxiety and depression, in which suicide seemed like a very tempting alternative to a life of hopeless darkness. Thankfully Cunningham (with the help of Prozac and the Internet) was able to find hope again, in large part through the creation of this book. Fusing his talent for art with his hard-earned knowledge of mental illness, he has created something of value.

Although Psychiatric Tales wasn't written with a Young Adult audience in mind, I think this is one that deserves to be widely read by that demographic. What people understand they are less likely to fear, and mental illness, with all its various stigmas, is still poorly understood by too many of us. Teens, in particular, are (I think) at a point in their lives when they are trying to Make Sense of things, and a book like this, that presents a difficult topic in a very accessible way, can serve as a useful introduction to the different forms mental illness can take. It is a message-heavy book, but that works in its favor when it's considered as such an introduction.

Also of particular interest to teenagers, wondering what path they might following in their own lives, is that this is a book about finding one's career. It is a look at what the life of a mental health nurse is like--the gritty, down-right revolting things one must deal with, and the stigma that's associated with this branch of the health care profession--psychiatric nurses are, in Cunningham's experience, looked down on by others in the nursing profession. It's also a career book about becoming a professional artist and graphic novel author--in particular, how the Internet helped Cunningham launch his own career.

There isn't any "adult content" viz sex and language here, but some things are very terrible. I read parts of the book with my ten-year-old, who is keenly interested in the topic. With me to explain, and soothe, and elaborate (and skip some things that I thought were too much for him to take), it worked for him.

Though there are sad and deeply disturbing things in this book, the ultimate message is one of hope.

(I feel totally unqualified to talk about the graphics...suffice it to say that I, who have trouble reading graphic novels, found that the images enhanced the words, as opposed to distracting me from them).

Other reviews, besides the one linked to at the beginning, can be found at PsychCentral, Ich Liebe Comics, Sound Therapy Radio, The Sleepless Bookworm, and Of Books and Reading.

Coincidentally (I'm incapable of actual Planning) May is National Mental Health Month! (it is a wide variety of other health related things too--you can find the whole list here. It's fascinating. I think I will celebrate Mediterranean Diet Month, and make my usual half-hearted effort viz Employee Fitness Month).

And finally, the non-fiction Monday round-up is at Jean Little Library today.

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