Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Three Comics for Mental Health

I'm part of a research group at Melbourne Uni making mental health websites for young people. My job as a writer is to design and write engaging, meaningful therapy for young people and their carers.

We started exploring using comics to convey therapeutic principles for the same reason lots of people use comics in health messaging - they're an attractive, fun way of presenting complex material in conversational language for young people who may have poor literacy skills, english as a second language or low cognitive functioning as a symptom of their illness or side effect of their medication. In this reasoning, images are secondary to text, a sort of visual representation to support ideas also conveyed in language, much like 'first readers' in primary school, where a picture of a ball is a visual cue to reinforce the word 'ball'.

But the more we explored comics and made decisions about representation, characterisation and setting, the more sophisticated we realised comics are, and in particular the language of imagery.

Art partakes of the intersubjective because we do not treat it as just a thing but as an object imbued with the traces of another living consciousness. In figurative art, this intersubjectivity, this dialogue between viewer and image, is heightened. Not only do we encounter the artist’s intentionality as expressed in the work before us, we gaze at a representation of someone like ourselves, another human being.  
Siri Hustevdt, Living, Thinking, Looking
Comics are humble, revealing the traces of their making, the wobbly human lines. Comics don't strive for perfection, they strive for connection. As readers we attend to the spaces and fill the gaps - the physical gaps between bodies or between panels, and the conceptual spaces between word and image, between showing and telling. Images themselves convey rich semiotic material that sometimes language is too clumsy to capture. Our response to a comic might be rational, linguistic, or it might be sensory and perceptual, drawing on the individualised tacit knowledge and experience of the reader in a very distinctive, aesthetic way (the same way, say, a poem does, as opposed to a bullet point instructional list, popular in internet land).

In my research I've found several graphic narratives that deal with mental health, and I thought, since yesterday was World Mental Health Day, I'd share three of my favourites here.

1. Trauma is Really Strange by Steve Haines (Singing Dragon, 2016)
This is an excellent discussion of how the science of trauma works in everyday life. Reflecting contemporary treatment approaches, Haines is not so much concerned with the causes of trauma, as he is with demonstrating how to live in a traumatised body, how to interact with the world, and how to use your environment to ground yourself. This is the most comprehensive, respectful and useful resource I've found for lay-readers like myself to understand trauma.

2. Marbles by Ellen Forney (Avery, 2012)
This is a memoir of the author's journey, beginning around the time of diagnosis, and following her through her experience of recognising symptoms and patterns, trying to get her medication right, establishing a relationship with her therapist and the impact her illness, diagnosis and treatment has on her everyday life. Alongside the 'dailiness' of living with mental illness, the memoir also grapples with Ellen's identity as an artist and performer and the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

 3. Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash (Candlewick, 2015)
This graphic memoir is not *about* mental health. It's about a girl on camp and her intense crush on a counsellor. The thing I love about this novel is that it culminates in a scene exploring what happens when fantasy meets reality, and how the gap between our expectations and what occurs in the real world can cause us pain. This novel is so honest and authentic, it really captures the particular nuances of summer camp as this 'outside' space that has its own rules and atmosphere, and the experience of negotiating emerging sexuality and first love within this 'chronotope' (narrative drenched space-time). This novel really captures what Young Adult fiction does best in the mental health space - showing a vulnerable protagonist navigating stressors and tough times and 'the past' (often displaying some unhealthy coping mechanisms or 'safety/avoidance behaviours'), and in the meantime finding her strengths and ultimately learning to use them to connect with others, cope with trouble and position herself positively in relation to the future. Highly recommend this one for secondary school libraries.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Night time chat (5 years old)

Avery:Can I have a story-song where we get to choose 3 things each?
Penni: No, I’m too tired I’m just going to sing a song that already exists.
Avery: Oh. (sadface) I want to be in the newspaper.
Penni: Like Una?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

My creative life

Please go listen to me and Karen Andrews having a yarn at The Creative Life podcast... And know this: we kept talking for another two hours after Karen turned the microphone off.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Una's letter

To Mr ____,

I very strongly believe that students at our school should be allowed to be in a strong relationship with each other. This, in other words, is having a boyfriend or girlfriend.

A lot of boys and girls in our school have a boyfriend or girlfriend. However, teachers spoke to their students about us not being allowed to anymore. I think this is outrageous! I have some reasons to support my thoughts.

My first reasons is, I think it helps us practice handling big emotions. When we are older, we will become more serious about it, but in the meantime, we should practice. We need to know what to do with them. No teacher expects a prep child to be able to read in a day, right? They need to PRACTICE! And so do we with big emotions like the ones some of us have!

My second reason is, love is, of course, a normal part of life! Almost every human being loves someone at the very least ONCE in their life! And so children at our school do too!

And my third and final reason is that it is certainly not necessary to feel ashamed about the emotions you have toward someone else! I think it is disappointing that our lovely school would turn down something like that!

Concluding, I hope that you will agree with me and make sure we take away this terrible rule.

Last term at my kids' school, the grades fives and sixes were talked to by their teachers about 'boyfriends' and 'girlfriends'. In line - most likely - with most primary schools, the official position was that primary school students are too young to have relationships*. While the rule is mostly around public displays of affection, it seemed to Una that the rule was too broad and applied to all definitions of 'a relationship' (remember in primary school 'going together' didn't necessarily mean touching), and she came home and wrote this letter. She's given me permission to post it here.

I had previously written a longer blog post about some unintended consequences of this rule, the fact that by making bans, students may not feel safe to access support and guidance from teachers and school leaders in matters of interpersonal relationships. It was brought to my attention that, by writing about a specific situation Una was in might lead to people in the community identifying a particular boy. While I feel no judgment or animosity against any child, I'd hate for people to think I was finger-pointing, and so I've eliminated that story from this blog. I will only say that it has been resolved with help from the school.

However, I will stand by this: I believe strongly that instead of shutting down conversations by making bans or denying some students' feelings, students need to be given vocabulary to deal with their feelings. The simple and key message here, to me, is 'no means no'. Students can and should, be given the language and communication skills to negotiate interpersonal relationships, including consent. A clear message that 'no means no' helps any student not ready for 'crushes' to set a clear boundary, and offers institutional support to all students. It also sets girls and boys up for more complex scenarios later.

I have worked hard with this school over the past two years to help them communicate their strengths. I advocate for this school because I believe in the community. It's a great school, and I feel lucky that my kids have such a strong and caring place - think how safe and trusting Una must have felt to write this brave letter. I'd hate for anything I wrote to reflect poorly on the school. I believe in the values of the school, and I think this letter encompasses them. I also believe in authentic student voice - these are Una's own words and her own values, and I respect her for writing this letter.

I posted this on my blog because I was proud of Una, and because I think she's right, and because I felt it spoke to a broader conversation about young people's rights and responsibilities, and I find her views offer a balanced, and refreshing, perspective.

*I was later told this is not an official position of the school and it was only Una's class that had this talk.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Monday, 6.30pm

Avery: God is everywhere. God’s in the air. God’s on my pizza.
Martin: Who told you that?
Avery: A boy who knows everything. A boy in my class.
Penni: Oh, yeah? Cool. Who?
Avery: Mason.
Penni: Right. And do you believe that god is everywhere?
Avery: Yes. I believe God is real.
Penni (to Una): What do you believe?
Una: Greek gods.
Avery: I don’t believe in pies though. I don’t believe pies are real.
Martin: You believe in God, but you don’t believe in pies?

Avery: Get off my foot God. God! Get off the roof! It’s dangerous up there.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

High School

It takes the time it takes:
a slow growth that appears
suddenly. She is more than the sum
of her days minutes and hours,
the trickle of weeks, the fluttering years,
the incalculable mathematics of her concern
about her hair which flicks up at the ends,
it will never be all right I want to say
but that's my lesson to learn not hers.
Her bag weighs more than a small child

Monday, December 28, 2015