This was one of the thorny issues we discussed at the First Tuesday Book Group this week (which coincidentally is Mental Health Week). We were looking at mental illness in kid’s literature and had all read Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s and Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
When you think about the writing life – the sometimes frustrating search for original ideas, the doubts that can creep in while writing, the insecure income, the isolation – does this all add up to a recipe for bad mental health? And does writing about mental health in an autobiographical way, such as Vizzini did, put more stress on the writer to stay well for his or her readers?
Vizzini’s novel was a fictionalised account of his mental breakdown and brief stay in a psychiatric ward. He was 23 at the time but made his main character, Craig Gilner, 15 – putting the book in the Young Adult range. Craig suffered from a self-imposed unrealistic expectation of success. This expectation became magnified – partly through drugs and a bad choice of friends – to a depression that manifested itself with cycling thoughts, insomnia and an inability to eat. While Vizzini’s novel ends on a comparative high, with the main character Craig embracing life beyond the pscyh ward, changing schools and having a possible girlfriend – knowing that the author ultimately suicided kind of put a downer on the book.
We discussed his book at great length asking more difficult questions – is it appropriate for young people to read a book like this? The evidence seems to be that not talking about suicide doesn’t work so perhaps there is a need for more literature that deals with the issue but provides hope.
The Red Tree – which is a more symbolic approach to the same issue – provoked a more mixed response. One member said she would definitely not show the book to her grandchildren – why unnecessarily run the risk of upsetting them? But another said her 9-year-old interpreted the story as a ‘boring day’ and then something changes and you remember that not all days are boring.
My own experience writing about depression has for the most-part been positive. People have confided in me about their own experiences and early childcare educators have talked about the relief experienced by some children exposed to Happy Pants. That feeling of not being the only one to have a depressed Mum or (in Vizzini’s case) experience mental illness – I think can be very cathartic for readers.
That said, being the poster-girl for PND does wear a bit thin at times and I can only imagine this was intensified for Vizzini who went around to schools talking about mental illness and his recovery.
I’d be interested in your thoughts 🙂