This week, in the UK, is Mental Health Awareness Week. An initiative designed to help break down the stigma of mental health, and to help people discuss their mental health in a constructive manner. Central to its campaign this year is the question “Surviving or Thriving?”
Whilst I’m fortunate enough not to suffer prolonged bouts of poor mental health, parenting definitely brings stretches of time where surviving is the focus of the day. In recent months, I’ve read three books centered around the subject. Two are by bestselling authors, one is a picture book, and one is a more personal account, written not by a GeekDad, but by a dad who is a geek. As such, many of us may recognize parts of his story.
Matt Haig is one my favorite authors (if you haven’t read The Humans, then you most certainly should). Haig has been very open about his struggle with depression and wrote a book about his experiences. Reasons to Stay Alive has been around for a few years now, and is an excellent book about both coping with depression, but also how to help others with their struggle.
If everybody read Reasons to Stay Alive it would improve the lives of millions of sufferers of mental illness. I have black days, where the world seems like too much effort. I occasionally think that I’m close to the edge, but Reasons to Stay Alive describes what is like to be at the bottom of the valley.
With his trademark clear and insightful language, Haig lays out what it’s like for a sufferer of depression and anxiety. He also explains what those around them can do to help. In simple terms, he debunks the myth of “tough love” and “pull yourself together,” giving a window into inner-workings of the sufferer. Pages 126 and 127 (of the UK edition) should be compulsory reading for everybody everywhere.
“Heart hammering, stomach churning, I felt hollowed out.” Debi Gliori – Night Shift
Children’s author and illustrator Debi Gliori has pared her experience down into a short picture book, Night Shift. Again this examines the battle sufferers of depression face. Gliori uses the metaphor of depression as a dragon, one that breathes an insidious fog.
In only a few pages, with beautiful black and white drawings, Gliori brings home the misery of her existence in the grip of depression. Much like Haig’s book, it helps convey how it feels to be depressed. The unrelenting nature of it, the desperate feeling that nothing matters. The book has a hopeful, forward-looking ending. It’s perfect to give to somebody when you can’t put into words how you are feeling.
In the midst of winter I found within me there was an invincible summer. Albert Camus, quoted in How to Find the Way Out
Luke Pemberton’s How to Find the Way Out is much more of manual to escape depression. It’s a cathartic description of the author’s own journey out of the darkness. Again Pemberton uses pictures, though there is also a fair amount of text. This is a more technical read than the other two books I’ve mentioned, though it never becomes bogged down in the details.
This is a heartbreaking and frank account of the author’s struggle with self-loathing. It explains how, through talking therapy, Pemberton found his way out of despair. There is lots of information on how his journey progressed, the things that worked for him. It’s full of further reading and resources to explore if you find yourself in a similar position to Pemberton.
The first third of the book deals with how Pemberton came to feel the way he did. This is a soul-bearing examination of his own childhood. I found it a difficult, but useful, read as it forced me to examine my own parenting style. I read They F*** You Up by Oliver James some years ago, in an attempt to understand some of my own (and my parents’) issues, but have never really thought about it in relation to my children.
I’m always aware that I hold three lives in my hands, and that my behavior towards my children will have unforeseen repercussions through the years. It’s hard to be mindful of this all the time, such as when you’ve asked for the 17th time that day for your kids to take their clothes upstairs, but How to Find a Way Out is a gentle reminder to ensure that the big things are in place. It stresses the importance of a safe, consistent, and above all, loving environment for our children.
Whilst I don’t consider myself a bad parent, reading How to Find A Way Out made me reevaluate some of my behavior toward my children, and opened me up to the importance of continuing that evaluation. Books like the three mentioned here should engender a greater empathy towards one another and the next generation. It would be nice to think that this increased empathy would ease the burden of poor mental health, but I fear that increased isolation and a more difficult world will continue to exact a toll on the world’s state of mind. For now, we have books like these, and initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week to ensure we maintain the dialogue and keep looking out for one another.
Don’t forget: the Reading Agency’s list of books for 13–18 year-olds suffering with mental health issues is still available.
Disclaimer: I received review copies of all of the books above.