Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness
Darryl Cunningham worked for a time at a psychiatric ward in England, so he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to portraying mental illness and the effect it has on those who suffer with it. Psychiatric Tales is based on the diary he kept during his time as a health care assistant. However, I must quibble with the subtitle — these aren’t stories so much as essays, points about how society treats psychiatric problems punctuated with case studies. That distinctive point of view, informing and educating the reader, is what makes the book worth reading.
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.
You can read a preview at Google Books or see sample pages as part of this Comics Journal review. Cunningham has gone on to make other comics about science facts at his blog. (The publisher provided a review copy.)