I know that there are heavy going themes tackled in comics format: from the ravages of war (as seen in Joe Sacco’s award-winning graphic novel journalism) to classic tomes such as Proust’s Swann’s Way, and historical memoirs/narratives as evident in the March Trilogy that features Congressman John Lewis’ lifelong advocacy for human rights. While I have read quite a few graphic novel memoirs that also tap into mental illness (Stitches by David Small remains unforgettable), it is rare that I come across a clinical representation told in comic format similar to what Darryl Cunningham has accomplished here.
Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness
Written and Illustrated by: Darryl Cunningham
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2011 ISBN: 1608192784 (ISBN13: 9781608192786).
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
In Cunningham’s Introduction, he wrote about how his experience as a health care assistant on a psychiatric ward inspired him to create this book. While he initially toyed with the idea of writing a prose narrative, reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis convinced him that, as a cartoonist himself, the narrative would be enhanced more through his black-and-white comics. He also wrote that this is his attempt to address the stigma often attached to mental illness (as could be seen below):
Despite the advancement of most people’s knowledge about the universe, there remains a great deal of myths and misconceptions concerning mental illness, brought about by a reluctance to know more about it. While we have gone past the Dark Ages whereby discussing this is considered taboo, there is still much that is swept under the rug, avoided, conveniently ignored – as if discussing it is inviting such darkness into our lives. I especially liked how Cunningham portrayed it as a neurological issue, making the scientific part accessible to the reader:
Too often, afflicted people are taught to simply shape up, try harder, or snap out of their depression, failing to realize that it is not a matter of will, but an imbalance in one’s neurochemistry. People’s well-meaning but misguided injunctions only serve to exacerbate the problem, making the person feel even more helpless and alone.
All the eleven stories in this collection are riveting and harrowing – most of them culled from Cunningham’s astute observations which he penned down in very clear black and white panels that are easy to follow. The linearity of the format appealed to me as it provided a semblance of structure to an already chaotic/disordered topic. I was especially moved by Cunningham’s introspective questioning as to what kind of horrors do the people he portrayed went through in order for them to inflict such unimaginable pain upon themselves. He does provide a hopeful note when he noted the following (see below), all the while encouraging people to become more open-minded and understanding:
While all the stories are equally devastating, I thought that his own sharing of his own mental health issues, as seen in the last story of the book, was very courageous, as he purged something that is deeply personal and painful and real. This story entitled “How I Lived Again” shows that things do get better, even if it takes quite awhile to reach some measure of equilibrium and stability.
One of the reasons why we have this reading theme to begin with is our advocacy as psychologists to also break stereotypes about the mentally ill, and to hopefully encourage more people to read more on the topic, to educate themselves and to see beyond the fear and the stigma. You can begin by reading this graphic novel.