Highly recommended mental health reading

As the year comes to an end, I find myself staring at my Goodreads page. I had a pretty good year for reading! Looks like I read 28 books when I wanted to read 20 – I’ll take it!

But, that’s not what I am writing about today, at least, not specifically. I wanted to pass along the books I have read in the mental health genre, both fictional and non-fictional. Some authors just do a remarkably good job of dealing with this realm, and it’s my honor to make a few recommendations. So, without further ado:

Fiction

  • The Summer The World Ended, Matthew Cox: A fantastic book about a young girl who experiences a traumatic loss and has her entire life uprooted. The book takes a close look at trauma, PTSD and more (which I can’t get into without spoiling).
  • Consider and Contribute, Kristy Acevedo: This was the only other book I could find which simultaneously dealt with a young adult, science fiction and mental illness! In the book, portals open, with aliens advising that Earth residents jump in them because the world is about to end. The book follows a young girl with major anxiety challenges and her struggles to deal with the new world. I also interviewed the author, Kristy Acevedo, here.
  • The Memory of Light, Francisco Stork: One of my favorites. It follows a young girl who survives a suicide attempt and her way back into the light. Stork was kind enough to answer an interview from me as well.

Non-Fiction

  • Lost Connections, Johann Hari: A controversial book which I had some issues with. Nonetheless, it offers some interesting insight into the ideas of social, societal and cultural causes behind depression and mental illness in general.
  • How To Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price: Okay, this isn’t exactly a mental health book, per se, but I think it is. It helps people learn how to stay away from their phones, and all the benefits that can bring. I also interviewed Price on the blog a few months ago.

And, of course, if you want one more book, allow me to suggest Redemption, my young adult, science fiction tale of depression, anxiety and saving the world.

Any other books to add? Please let us know in the comments. Have a WONDERFUL new year!

Interview: Not Another Anxiety Show

Hey folks – a quick entry here, just wanted to share a podcast interview I did for those of you who are interested. Thanks to Kelli over at Not Another Anxiety Show for hosting me on her podcast, where we discussed mental health, politics, and I miiiiiiiiiight have mentioned the book I have COMING OUT TOMORROW.

Here’s the show. Enjoy!

The language of suicide, and why it matters

As you may have noticed, whenever I discuss suicide on this blog, I’m always very careful on how I phrase it, although researching this blog entry has made me realize that I’ve been messing this up to. There are words and phrases you should and should not use when describing suicide – here’s a quick overview about some best practices.

Why “committed suicide” is bad

This one is more obvious and stigma oriented. Simply put, “committed” is used to describe a crime. Someone committed a murder. They committed a robbery.

Committed, in this context, is usually associated with a moral judgement, and that’s not a way that any of us want to describe suicide. Suicide and mental illness shouldn’t be associated with a moral failing. Doing so can make people who suffer feel weak or ashamed, and that can serve to increase the stigma that surrounds both mental illness. The language we use should encourage others to seek help, not drive them into a closet of fear and shame.

Why “completed suicide” is also bad

This is the phrase I’d always used – I viewed it as preferable – but this is a really good point:

Think of the sense of accomplishment you feel when you complete a big project. Then think of the disappointment you feel when you don’t.

Completion is good, and suicide isn’t.

To complete something conveys success; to leave something incomplete conveys failure.

Indeed, we do associate completion with success, and no one’s suicide should be viewed as a success. So, there must be something else.

The alternatives

I think the AP is on track when it comes to these alternatives. The phrases used here are preferable, in that they are accurate and avoid the moral connotations that comes with “completed” and “committed.”

Language matters. Words matter. We know that the way we describe an action can unintentionally pass judgement over the action and can increase or decrease the stigma that comes with it. All of us have an obligation to be careful in the way we talk, and I’m going to be better at this from now on.

And one more thing: In our society, there’s been a backlash against being “politically correct” when it comes to how we describe things. My experience has been that this backlash is more orientated around being a decent and non-racist person, but that’s besides the point.

The way we discuss suicide has nothing to do with political correctness. It has everything to do with creating an environment that makes people feel safe, that supports (rather than harms) their mental health, and that can increase the odds of someone seeking help instead of ending their life.

Any thoughts you want to add? Any other language recommendations? I’d love to hear them – please let us know your thoughts in the comments!

4 Video Games that portray mental illness

As I’ve discussed before, I’m a video game nerd.  Hardcore.  And, as someone who is a bit obsessed with eradicating stigma that is related to mental illness, I remain fascinated by public portrayal of depression, anxiety and addiction.

Video games, I believe, are art.  I define art as the ability to make a profound emotional impact on a person.  As such, the portrayal of mental illness in video games – and indeed, humanity – continue to fascinate me, and make me think.  The good news is this: Video games can often describe the human condition in a more thoughtful and complete than many movies and television shows.  That line of thinking inspired this blog entry: How does video games portray mental illness?  How accurate is that portrayal?

Oh, and spoilers below.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

LifeIsStrange

This one is the prequel to Life is Strange, one of my favorite games, made by Square Enix.  It is a walking simulator  in which you follow Chloe, the main character, as she battles her way through high school and falls in love with Rachel, the previously unseen character who plays a pivotal role in Life is Strange.  

I firmly believe that Chloe is suffering through some major depression symptoms.  Her father has died a few years before and her mother is dating a man who she openly despises and fights with; both of these experiences can lead to depression.  She drinks and does drugs often enough to have a regular dealer to whom she owes money. Her best friend is gone, and not communicating with her at all.  She comes across as angsty, but it’s more than that.  Her quotes, thoughts and actions are often self-destructive and reflect a young woman in pain.

To me, this is more than just a teen being a teen.  She’s miserable, she fights with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, her family has financial issues, and she is clearly discovering her sexuality.  These are all symptoms that lead my to believe that Chloe is suffering from depression.

What makes the game more relatable is the game’s treatment of Chloe.  In the start of episode one, she is petulant and miserable – not the greatest portrayal.  However, as the game evolves, she becomes a more sympathetic character, and a multi-layered one at that.  You see her hopes, dreams and ability to connect with others.  And, by hearing her thoughts, you can hear all of the truly heartbreaking things she is thinking and saying to herself, about herself.

You intrinsically want Chloe to be better, to have healthier thought patterns and make better decisions.  And, in that sense, I hope that the game can give people a better idea of what it is like to live a life under duress, as Chloe clearly does.

A Night In The Woods

NightInTheWoods

Disclosure: I’m only part way through this one

A Night In The Woods is a platformer. You play as Mae, who has just dropped out of college and returned home.  I’m not very far along this one, but where I’ve gotten to, strange things are happening in her hometown after she reunites with her friends.

The college drop-out part is interesting.  Again, I’m not far in, but thus far, Mae has refused to talk about what happened to her in college, aside from saying that college “didn’t work out” or some variation of that phrase.  She reconnects with old friends, who all have their own battles:

Mae, the protagonist, experiences depression and anxiety, which sometimes create dissociative states during which she becomes completely disconnected from reality. It is implied, though never directly stated, that Gregg has bipolar disorder. His poor impulse control gets him into bad situations, and at times these factors impact his feelings of self worth. Bea and Angus both struggle with the consequences of abusive pasts and their relationships with their families.

As has been noted by Kotaku, the game’s creator’s have both discussed their own battles with mental illness:

The game’s creators have spoken candidly in the past about their own mental health struggles. Scott Benson, who animated and illustrated the game, has type two bipolar disorder. Programmer Alec Holowka runs the Everybody’s Fucked Up podcast, which aims to break through stigma around mental illnesses by interviewing people who have experienced them. (Bethany Hockenberry, the writer of the game, was unable to meet with Kotaku for an interview.)

This game is different than the standard platformer in a few ways, but chief among them is that it allows users to make dialogue choices that affect the game.  This puts you in the driver seat and gives you the perspective of Mae, thus ensuring that you get a first-hand look at what it is like to live a life with depression.

As I said, I’m only a little way into this one, but I’m very curious to learn more.

Please Knock On My Door

Disclosure: I haven’t played this one.

PleaseKnock

This is the portion of the blog entry where the games start getting a touch more obvious.  In Please Knock On My Door:

Please Knock on My Door is a simple game about a person living with depression. The protagonist, a blocky, inky-black character, lives a fairly standard life: Wake up, go to work, come home, repeat. The days are punctuated with mundane tasks like making a sandwich or showering, but each one carries extra weight as it drains — or bolsters — the main character’s mental fortitude.

The game’s art style is simple and stripped down, forcing players to experience the emotions of the game, not be overwhelmed by its graphics, and the focus on simple decisions and how draining they can be gives players the experience of depression, and the added knowledge that each decision made can weigh on a normal human being.  In that sense, it seems to concentrate on giving players the sense of just what a burden living with depression can be.

Depression Quest

Depression Quest

Disclosure: I haven’t played this one either.

Gee, I wonder what this game is about?  From the website:

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.

The game was designed by Zoe Quinn, who faced a slew of death threats for her efforts.  Charming.

As for the game itself: You live the life of someone with depression, making what are relatively mundane decisions about living life.  That being said, in the game, happier decisions are often grayed out, forcing the player to experience life as through someone with depression.  The game is told through a series of text decisions.  In that sense, again, it tries to get the user to experience depression from a first-person perspective.

These are just four, and there are certainly many more.  Any other games you’d like to share?  Let us know in the comments below!

An overview & critique: Depression in fiction books

For reasons that I will inevitably wind up discussing more in-depth later, this is a topic that I am very interested in.  After all, there is no doubt about it: So much of our world is informed by our media, including fiction books.  Major pop culture phenomenons – books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, for instance – wind up having a major impact on a whole slew of societal attitudes, everything from the names of our children to the hobbies we play.

Of course this extends to serious issues, like mental health.  As I sat, thinking about this entry, I came to the realization that I cannot think of too many books I’ve read that explicitly feature stories about characters who feature mental illness – even when the book is potentially about something other than mental illness.  This is important from a stigma perspective: I think it is vital that readers hear stories about people with mental illness living a successful life, despite their challenges.

Now, please don’t misunderstand: Just because I haven’t read them doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.  A very quick Google search reveals no shortage of books that discuss exactly this topic.  And, indeed, many of these books touch of mental illness in a more tangential way.

Two young adult books that I’ve read immediately come to mind.  One is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which discusses a young woman moving to college and dealing with a slew of pressures, then finding therapy in her writing.  Another, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet by Joanne Proulx, features a character who clearly is struggling with depression and anxiety, even though it goes unspoken throughout the novel.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of Young Adult novels, which I must confess, I still enjoy (a quick look at my Goodreads page will confirm this!).  But, from the perspective of mental illness, there is an important reason for discussing this genre in particular: 50% of all mental illness starts at age 14, and 75% by age 24.  If this issue can be addressed early enough – particularly during it’s onset – it can make a big difference.

I suppose my point is this: As best I can tell – and, again, admittedly, I could be wrong, please correct me if I am – it seems like mental illness in fiction is addressed in one of two ways:

  1. It is completely undiagnosed, leaving readers guessing or playing armchair psychiatrists, and that’s never a good idea.
  2. It is the centerpiece of the book.

Don’t get me wrong, neither of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  I’m just having this conversation from a stigma perspective.  The first option listed above can be problematic and fail to fully address a characters illness, which can lead to misguided perceptions about the way that mental illness works.  The second option can be good, but it, too, can make people think that mental illness is somehow more debilitating than it truly is.

Also, please understand, I’m not criticizing any author or book.  Many of the ones that deal with mental illness – directly or indirectly – are powerful, and it’s not possible or fair to be critical of an author simply because they don’t address a particular issue in a way I want to see it done.

That being said, from a stigma perspective, that’s what I’d love to see more of.

Any thoughts to add, or books I am missing?  I’d really love to know – if only to read them!  Please let us know in the comments.