I teach literature to college students. Often, we talk about the stories of Ernest Hemingway and Edith Wharton and Tim O’Brien, authors who wrote about and experienced mental health issues. My students play the role of armchair psychologist well, applying terms they’ve learned from antidepressant medication advertisements, movies, or the General Psychology course from the prior semester to fictional characters. I try not to over-correct them because sometimes their knowledge is from direct experience with mental health issues. (Though, I will object when someone claims the famous Hemingway character Nick Adams is a sociopath, since the argument's usually supported by evidence from Showtime's serial-killer show Dexter.)
In many discussions, I highlight depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and stress in the characters or plots because I believe there’s value in analyzing how illness travels from a writer to the page to the reader. But for Mental Illness Awareness Week, I take time to discuss mental health as a real world issue, not as an artistic theme. Initially, I give my students information about the mental health services offered by the university. They have been told this information before -- the hours, the services available, etc. They’ve been assured of things like professionalism and confidentiality. Some of them have considered taking advantage of the services; some of them actually speak up to promote the serves. But I have no idea if telling students the hours of the on-campus therapists will encourage those in crisis to actually seek help.
So, I also talk about how mental illness has affected my life and my work.
I tell my students that I am a writer and a teacher who was diagnosed with clinical depression and social anxiety disorder many years ago. I am medicated. I have been in therapy. I am not cured. I am better now than I was at their age. I describe, in reasonable detail, the ways my anxiety and depression affected my life as a teenager and then as undergraduate and still as an adult.
I tell my students that I spent a long time trying to hide my mental illness and trying to “treat” myself. I tell them that, eventually, I had to accept that trying to tough it out was not possible. Curing myself was also not possible. Getting help, however, was possible.
I confess that I wish I’d gotten help sooner.
I reveal the insecurities and concerns I once had about therapy.
I explain that a close friend and my would-be wife eventually guided me to therapy and that it saved my life.
What has actually had more of a profound effect -- in terms of triggering private conversations with students about their mental health -- is literature itself. Because of protagonists battling violent impulses or short stories about depression, students have approached me to talk about how they suffer in ways that mirror the characters.
For some of you, this might be surprising. For someone who writes and teaches fiction for a living, it is not. Stories offer perspective and, in some cases, validation. When someone champions the abstract "power of reading," one of the things they’re referring to is the power stories have to make a reader feel less alone, less weird, less weak. A story or character can validate a reader's emotions. Students can be told "you are not alone" by parents, friends, teachers, but reading something that illustrates that sentiment feels different. It’s processed differently.
Sometimes stories give a reader the necessary vocabulary of mental illness. Or the courage to admit to pain. It’s not about seeing a character that’s just like me -- instead, it’s seeing a character that suffers like me. The difference is key and profound. If a character had to be just like me to inspire me to talk about my depression, I’d read for a thousand years and never speak. In truth, we only need to see familiar suffering, familiar worry, familiar fears, familiar manias in order to build strength. Or to just find the words.
In my novel, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, the protagonist James Whitman tries to treat his own depression by reciting poetry by Walt Whitman, hugging trees, and talking to an imaginary pigeon therapist. (You read that right.) I did none of these things as a teenager, you should know, but I had all sorts of other things I attempted to battle panic attacks and depression. Like James, I didn’t know what was wrong with me except that I felt depressed. (The word felt right, but what did it truly mean?) In addition to depression, I paced around nervously; my heart raced. I was having panic attacks for years and didn’t know it. I avoided social gatherings. I had a few friends whom I didn’t even confide in about my funky brain. I spent lots of time sleeping, reading, listening to music, and convincing myself that I was an emotional, self-sufficient person.
James and I are not the same, but we share similar feelings.
As for James, he believes he has no reason to be depressed, chides himself, and dismisses his own emotions. But when James discovers that his sister might be suffering even more than he is, his anxiety and depression become unmanageable. I reached the point of unmanageable depression later in life than James.
But I didn’t write Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets as an act of self-therapy. Nor do I expect the novel to cure people of depression and anxiety. No book can accomplish such a thing. What I hope is that -- aside from being interesting and emotionally engaging and funny -- it can give certain readers strength and help them to realize that they don’t need permission to get help or speak up. (I also hope it makes people laugh because even those of us that suffer from depression can -- and need to -- laugh.)
The stigma of mental illness is weakening, at least in my sphere of experience. Students talk about it imperfectly but with more understanding, often because they know someone who suffers from depression, panic attacks, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, or other serious conditions. I believe it will continue to get better. Those of us who suffer can continue to be advocates for those who cannot speak out yet. People who suffer shouldn't be left huddled together, hoping not to be dismissed, chastised, mocked, or ignored.
For more infomration on Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct 7-13 2012) visit http://www.nami.org/template.cfm?section=mental_illness_awareness_week