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Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness Hardcover – February 1, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
In this debut book, Cunningham tells his reader right away that he has a message to impart. Having worked for years as a health care assistant in a hospital's psychiatric ward, he states his intent to counter the stigma surrounding mental illness and to represent the patients who suffer from "this most mysterious group of illnesses." The down and dirty truth about what it takes to care for dementia patients, the acts that self-harming patients are capable of, and the conundrum of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia all make for powerful, informative, and sometimes difficult reading. Cunningham's message, that "a mental illness is a brain disease just as a stroke or a brain tumor is a brain disease," is delivered in direct, no-nonsense language, while black and white drawings convey the hectic life of the disordered mind. Cunningham frequently speaks directly to sufferers, telling them that their symptoms are not their fault, that there are ways of dealing with them and simply that "you can survive." Speaking with compassion and clarity, Cunningham tells of his own struggles with severe anxiety and depression. creating a valuable tool for both those within the mental health profession and casual readers who may know someone with mental illness. (Feb.)
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This gem of a book examines a wide range of mental-health issues as well as Cunningham�s personal experiences with mental illness. Chapters cover dementia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicide, antisocial disorder, and, perhaps most movingly, Cunningham�s own struggle to overcome depression. He also notes important historical figures who suffered from mental illness, such as Winston Churchill, who is now believed to have been bipolar; Brian Wilson, who suffered from hallucinations; and Judy Garland, who was beset by anxiety and depression. The concise and poignant tales, while self-contained, build upon each other and create a framework that allows Cunningham to effectively question the stigmas associated with mental illness. His inviting cartooning style mixes contrasting backgrounds with simple line drawings that leave a stark impression. The overall message�that mental illness is biochemical in origin and deserves the same kind of sympathy as other serious illnesses�is one that deserves to be heard. --Stephen Weiner
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Cunningham isn’t shy about his aims, explaining in his illustrated introduction that he wants to help fight the “fear and ignorance of mental illness … widespread in society.” He also attempts to share his knowledge of what patients go through, because of the disease, its underlying causes or complications, and as a result of treatment.
Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of mental illness. Most are sections on particular ailments (including dementia, cutting and self-harm, depression, psychopathic traits, and bipolar disorder), but one is a touching reminder of some famous sufferers. The last two chapters are more personal. The first tells of the two suicides Cunningham encountered at the hospital and the effect their actions had on him and others. The next, the last in the book, tells of his own struggle with anxiety and depression. Over a period of time, he gave up on training to become a nurse, due to the immense pressure, but found new hope in his artistic work, eventually resulting in this, his first book. His personal experience and suffering adds depth to the material.
For me, reading Psychiatric Tales accomplished his goal, creating understanding and sympathy. The chapter “It Could Be You” argues for that reaction, explaining how these conditions are brain diseases, not something that results from “a failure of character and self-discipline”. An underlying message is that relatives often make things worse, due to societal pressure. If patients had more “acceptable” diseases, they’d have plenty of support from those close to them; however, those with stigmatized brain issues are often shunned, making the situation worse for them.
Cunningham’s style is simple, black-and-white, flat, and blocky. Some panels are symbolic, puzzle pieces, lightning bolts, or brains. Copious use of black punctuates the message that this is a serious matter, with often life-threatening effects. His lack of detail aids in his portrayal, since it makes clear that he’s not talking about specific people (which would violate confidentiality) as much as conditions and situations. He’s skilled at explaining things simply but with the right level of detail for comprehension and later recall. His subtle message of hope, that there are ways to handle these diseases, is a welcome undertone.
Be warned: there are some disgusting and graphic incidents portrayed that will stay with you, whether you want them to or not. Still, this is an insightful collection of tales that makes an excellent addition to the growing area of medical graphic novels. (The publisher provided a review copy.) (Review originally posted at ComicsWorthReading.com)