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.