Darryl Cunningham drew on his time working in a psychiatric hospital to produce the ‘eleven graphic stories about mental illness’ collected in this book. Most of the stories focus on, and attempt to demystify, particular mental illnesses (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) or aspects of mental illnesses (self-harm, suicide), one focuses on famous people who have suffered from mental illness (Winston Churchill, Spike Milligan), and the final story focuses on the author’s own experiences of mental illness. I enjoyed the whole book, but as an aspiring cartoonist who has also experienced mental illness, I could really relate to the final story.
I have suffered from depression and low self-esteem on and off since I was a teenager (I’m now 42), and like the author, I spent years producing comic strips that I was too insecure to promote, partly because I disliked being the centre of attention. On more than one occasion, I have given up writing and drawing entirely, for several years at a time, and I have also experienced years of unemployment. I have never been that outgoing, but in the late-1990s, I started to become extremely agoraphobic, and until very recently, I couldn’t even walk a short distance from my home on my own without having a panic attack. I am more or less over that now, but only because I spent more than two years in counselling, receiving cognitive behavioural therapy, and finally started to take anti-depressants, after resisting them for years because I was worried that they would make me feel worse (I still only took half the dose my doctor recommended, but since reading the chapter on depression in this book, I have increased to the recommended dose).
Not only do I now go out more or less normally (although I do still struggle with my natural tendency to stay at home), I am also much less afraid of pushing myself forward. As recently as two years ago, I wouldn’t have even considered blogging (I used to get paranoid if I just posted a message on someone else’s blog, or even on Facebook) but now I have three blogs on the go, have started drawing again, and am enjoying it more than I ever did in the past. That I could enjoy going out, writing on a public forum, or even publishing my comics online without experiencing anxiety, was inconceivable to me for many years... which all seems a bit odd to me now.
Using simple artwork, frequently interspersed with distorted photographs, Cunningham effectively conveys the inner turmoil experienced by people with mental illnesses, an inner turmoil that can be made much worse by public misconceptions about mental illness and a general lack of sympathy. As one character in the book says, ‘If I’d had cancer, people would have rallied around, but because I had schizophrenia, few people wanted to know’. I found parts of the book quite upsetting, particularly the section on self-harm, but ultimately this is an uplifting book with a very positive message: no matter how hopeless things may seem when you are suffering from a mental illness, no matter how unlikely it seems that you will enjoy life again, things can get better, a mental illness is not necessarily a life sentence, your experiences can make you a stronger person and you can enjoy life (and comics) again. I whole-heartedly agree.
‘Psychiatric Tales’ deserves to be widely read and it would make a great addition to any library. If I weren’t broke and living my life ‘on the ration’, I would buy multiple copies to give to friends, family and passing strangers. But just because I’m not going to do that, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Buy several!
Cost: This has a cover price of $15.00 (I have managed to end up with a copy of the US edition of this book) but I got my copy from the Book Depository, last May, and paid just £6.96 (including postage). It’s gone up a bit since then but it would be well worth buying even at the full cover price. (Note: I put off reading this for so long because Paul had already read and reviewed it on this blog, so I thought I should let a bit of time pass before I reviewed it again, but I now wish I’d read it sooner.)