Speaking For Themselves: Mental Health Memoirs

By Anthony Murisco, Public Engagement Librarian 

Since 1949, May has been recognized in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Association for Mental Health, now Mental Health America, set up the month of educational events to clear up misconceptions about mental health and provide resources to those who need them.  

The knowledge of public health is always changing. What may have been taken as fact years ago is not necessarily the truth now. This is true for understanding mental health, or formerly, mental hygiene.  


 
From November 8th to 15th in 1912, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene and the Committee on Mental Hygiene of the New York State Charities Aid Association hosted a conference at the College of the City of New York. These two organizations brought together some of the leading minds on the subject. This was a relatively new idea. Modern understanding of psychiatry had begun less than a hundred years earlier.  

The goal of this conference was what the public could do regarding their own mental health. They came up with six tenets. 

While worded harshly in today’s terms, these suggestions try to offer a compassionate understanding of mental illness. The fourth, “Speak and think of insanity as a disease and not as a crime,” stands out as something we continue to struggle with today.  
 

One of the forefathers of the mental health awareness movement would not be considered a traditional mental health expert. Clifford Whittingham Beers was born in 1896. Mental illness ran in his family. He himself served several stints in mental institutions. Upon the cruel treatment inflicted upon him at these hospitals, he went on to write a memoir on the subject. In A Mind That Found Itself, he writes of the degradation that he and his fellow patients were subject to. This memoir was key to providing a voice for those who were afraid to speak of their own illness. In 1909 Beers founded the organization now called Mental Health America.  
 

From the first edition of A Mind That Found Itself.

Since the publication of Beers’ book, several writers have explored their own experience. These mental health memoirs offer both guidance and companionship to those who also suffer. They provide maps for those who care about those who may be suffering and allows a peek inside minds that many cannot comprehend.  

Some of these authors bring humor to their reflections.  Two funny people wrote about their own struggles. Kevin Breel is a Canadian comedian. He also suffers from depression. His memoir, Boy Meets Depression, allows readers into the mind of someone who experienced the mental illness early on in life. Sara Benincasa is known for being a comical blogger. Her own memoir Agorafabulous! reveals her fight with depression as well as agoraphobia, the fear of leaving one’s house.  

Graphic memoirs allow us to see with the author’s vision. In dealing with mental health, we get to experience dark visions or the physical manifestation of anguish.  


 
The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino starts off with a hospitalization. After his illness, Porcellino’s health didn’t get better. His brief stint had taken a toll on his mental health. He writes about the experience of his recovery from an obsessive-compulsive episode. Porcellino is candid about his struggles and his fears of his bouts recurring. 


 
Ellen Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before her thirteenth birthday. Afraid of stunting her creativity, she seeks treatment that will help her fulfill her potential. She begins to look at other artists who have suffered from mental illness. Finding all minds are different, she wonders what’s going to be best for her. Forney takes us on her personal highs and lows in Marbles. 


 
Towards the end of his work on the epidemic of mental fatigue and pressure, People Under Pressure, Albert M. Barrett, MD, offered a sympathetic take on mental health challenges. For fifteen years prior to his 1960 publication, he worked alongside counselors and therapists. Barrett urges us to consider a different point of view. He writes, “For no man is an island, and the relief we provide other human beings will reflect itself in our own peace of mind.” Compassion is vital towards greater public health. 
 
 
References: 

Barrett, Albert M. People under Pressure. College and University Press, 1960.  

Benincasa, Sara. Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2013.  

Breel, Kevin. Boy Meets Depression: Or Life Sucks and Then You Die Live. Harmony Books, 2015.  

Clifford, Beers W. A Mind That Found Itself; an Autobiography. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908.  

Forney, Ellen. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me: A Graphic Memoir. Gotham Books, 2012.  

National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and State Charities Aid Association (N.Y.). Committee on Mental Hygiene. Proceedings of the Mental Hygiene Conference and Exhibit at the College of the City of New York…. Committee on Mental Hygiene of the State Charities Aid Association, 1912.  

Porcellino, John. The Hospital Suite. Drawn & Quarterly, 2014.  

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