Psychology has always been a passion of mine, something that I am constantly learning more and more about. There are hundreds of mental illnesses, and countless books, including memoirs, self-help literature, diagnostic manuals, etc. on the subject. High profile celebrities like Carrie Fisher write about how they suffered and still suffer from illness like bipolar, depression, anorexia, etc. to foster understanding about these diseases. I was diagnosed with depression when I was thirteen years old, and was diagnosed with anxiety when I was 22 years old.
But despite how much literature there is out there, there is still a stigma attached to those with mental illness and those that help treat it. I have been told by many people, including strangers, that my anxiety would go away if “I just thought happy thoughts.” Oh, if only. Mental illnesses are diseases, but still many maintain the antiquated belief that if one has enough backbone and strength of will, one can defeat these illnesses without medication, doctors, or any help other than the strength of one’s own mind—not too helpful when the disease is neurological.
Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham seeks to erode the negative associations with mental illness and psychiatric care and treatment. With his simplistic artwork in high contrast black and white, Cunningham elucidates what he has witnessed as a psychiatric nurse and as someone who has suffered from depression.
The book contains eleven stories about mental illness, from “Dementia Ward” to “People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives.” Cunningham’s drawings are simple and don’t contain much detail. This suits the subject matter very well, because they lend a bit of personality and feeling to each panel. There is no fancy computer manipulation— he simply got out the sharpie and drew, straight from his mind’s eyes to the paper. I found that when Cunningham moved away from his own unique artwork and towards photo manipulation, as he does in “People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives,” that I didn’t quite care for the story as much.
Cunningham does go into subject matter that is incredibly hard to deal with gracefully, often choosing the most misunderstood of the mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder, and the most misunderstood consequences of mental illness, like cutting and suicide, and treats them with love and with care. It could be so easy for him to simply avoid these subjects altogether, or look at them clinically and without personal feeling, but instead he does something very brave. He puts his own feelings on the page, and explains why people cut (not because they seek attention, but because of a need for emotional release), how suicide effects not only family and friends (he describes how a patient committed suicide and how helpless he felt at not being able to do anything about it), and how these are actual diseases that need to be treated with understanding, not fear and aggression.
While this book may not satisfy someone searching for a more in-depth look into mental illnesses, this is a perfect book to hand to someone who is taking a Psychology 101 class, has had a friend or family member recently diagnosed with a mental illness, or who is confused or curious about what mental illnesses really are.
by Darryl Cunningham