Title: Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Stories about Mental Illnes
Author: Cunningham, Darryl
Genre: Graphic Novel
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
PP: 160 pp
I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time, and it’s as impressive as I’d been hoping. In one sense, the book is a fascinating handbook, focusing on different kinds of mental illness in each chapter. These include dementia, self-harming, depression, anti-social personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicide, and great figures in history who’ve suffered mental illnesses. But it also follows Darryl Cunningham’s own journey, starting as a health care assistant and then training to become a mental health nurse until the strain of the course threw him into severe depression and he had to stop.
But all the years of working as a carer gave him a deep insight into the lives of people suffering different conditions and provided him with real-life work anecdotes that make him able to portray them as real people, not just clinical conditions. And it also makes the reader care about Cunningham as a health worker, realizing the hard-core things these carers deal with, and the emotional beatings they go through. But the book’s not a request for us to pity the writer; his straightforward, almost dead-pan voice at times focuses us as readers on the universality of mental health problems, and emphasizes the need to be able to talk about these things in a way that doesn’t stigmatize people for being ill, in the way we wouldn’t if someone had, say, a broken leg. A deep sense of empathy is the thing that came through most clearly to me in this book, and the last chapter clinches it, when Cunningham allows us to see his own struggle with depression and the hope he gives to other people who suffer it.
The artwork in this book reads very easily and clearly, and provides an excellent introduction to graphic novels for readers who are not very familiar with the medium. Cunningham’s solid line-work and shapes draw inspiration from a long tradition of woodcut illustrations, and his clever compositions give the story its great impact.
This accessible book could become a classic text for people learning about mental illness, and would fit just as easily into a school library or doctor’s office as in a comic book shop. The book raises a lot of important issues and would make an excellent assigned reading to start off discussions about different kinds of mental illness, the role and treatment of health carers, living with someone who suffers one or more of these illnesses and public perception of mental disorders. Or it may simply provide much-needed comfort to readers in discovering they are not alone in a world where they don’t seem to fit in.