A post in belated celebration of World Mental Health Awareness Day!

The evidence may only be anecdotal, but it really seems to me that with every year that goes by there are more and more people putting themselves out there on social media and in the public eye talking candidly about mental health.  The old adage that it’s good to talk has been, and still is, the cornerstone of many campaigns promoting awareness of the mind-centred problems that besiege so many millions of us.  As an avid reader, I find it interesting to think about the part that books have to play in stimulating the mental health conversation, and I want to share with you a few that have not only helped me, but whose wider influence I have witnessed first-hand.

Alongside an increase in online and media discussion has come a noticeable growth in the publishing of books – some factual, some not – that explore mental health issues.  Often our instinct is to seek out others whose experiences are similar to our own, and it’s a source of great comfort to me that whatever you’re struggling with, there will in all likelihood be someone somewhere who’s written about it.  It was for that reason I was drawn to “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” by David Adam, an unflinchingly honest and illuminating book charting the author’s experience of OCD.  I’m fortunate enough not to suffer with that condition myself, but spending many years close to someone who does has raised many questions that I haven’t always felt able to ask.  Now here was someone who could explain to me in black and white something of what it’s like to live with these compulsions, without my feeling that I was being intrusive or inappropriate by wanting to know.  Matt Haig, in his book “Reasons to Stay Alive”, did a similarly excellent job of explaining depression from the point of view of someone who has himself been to places most of us cannot imagine.  The book was incredibly successful commercially, partly I think because so many of us have either experienced some level of depression ourselves or know someone who has; but also because he managed to put his feelings into the most perfect of words again and again.  Finding the most effective language with which to convey the sense of any mental health disorder can seem almost impossible, but this was a book I was ardently pressing into people’s hands telling them that, finally, here were the words that would make them begin to understand.

Responsibly researched fiction can also have a part to play, I believe, in helping to break down the taboos and the mystery surrounding many mental health conditions.  We’ve come a long way, mercifully, from the lunatic in the asylum motif of the gothic horror and into an era where there is in many instances a genuine desire to understand the suffering of others.  Nathan Filer’s remarkable novel “The Shock of the Fall” is one such example: a portrait of a man in excruciating mental anguish that has stayed with me for the past couple of years.  The author actually had experience in the nursing of mental health patients, and I think knowing that before I started reading gave me confidence that the book wasn’t going to be sensationalist, inaccurate or exploitative in any way.

Events such as World Mental Health Day are ideal opportunities to bring the issue back to the forefront of our minds, but the conversation has to continue every single day for it to have an ongoing effect.  The fact that there are so many books out there to help make this a reality is definitely something to be celebrated.

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