A “profoundly affecting volume” on mental illness

By Christopher Ringrose
other states of mind

Other States of Mind: Stories of Mental Health | Compiled by Natasha Bernard | Rag and Bone Man Press

Melbourne-based editor Natasha Bernard has facilitated a unique collection of testimonies from people affected by mental illness, encouraging them to write short pieces exploring their experience.

Inspired by her relationship with her own grandmother, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, Bernard has designed Other States of Mind to include autobiography from friends, relatives and professionals living with people with mental illness, alongside autobiographical accounts by those most directly affected.

The result is a profoundly affecting volume – stirring, melancholy, inspiring and illuminating by turns, with a cumulative effect different from that of any other book I have read on the subject. The strategy of encouraging the 40 or so contributors to speak out in their own voices emphasises the diverse forms that mental illness can take, but also stresses the creativity and resourcefulness that allows those affected to live as well as possible.

The opening essay, ‘Anna’s Story’ by Bernard ’s mother Marion, acts as a declaration of intent for the book. In unflinching terms, it describes the experience of living with a beloved mentally ill mother, while confronting and combating “the terrible stigma on a person and her family members” that can result from such a condition. The complexities and difficulties of Anna’s experience are set alongside the family’s pain and determination. Marion’s account also sketches the social history of attitudes to mental illness in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond – while acknowledging the support given to the family by the Peter James Centre, in particular.

The essays that follow include first-hand accounts such as Skye Hartung’s raw, direct account of alcoholism, of “being labeled as bipolar”, and of her gratitude to those who guided and helped her. It ends with a hard-won sense of achievement and happiness.

Madeleine Lewin, Natasha Rubinstein, Emma B. and others tell the stories of friends and relations with skill, empathy and a forthrightness that the editor has encouraged in all her contributors. In some cases, interviews are skillfully utilised to help individuals with depression and anxiety contribute to the book. Such pieces are interspersed with unattributed evocative pieces like ‘I Have No Friends’. These may be Bernard herself, but it is hard to tell. (I would have welcomed a little more editorial information on these pieces, and the process whereby contributions were solicited and encouraged.)

Other States of Mind operates on a number of levels: as a resource for sufferers, their friends and relations that addresses any sense of isolation they might harbour; as imaginative writing that educates readers and appeals to their capacity for empathy; and as a contribution to what, in health education, is becoming known as “the medical humanities” and the broadening of professional awareness.

The section ‘Community’ is devoted to first-hand accounts of how local groups like Aussie Helpers, Indigenous communities in remote Australia, suicide prevention workshops, women’s internet forums, the Bipolar Bears, and men’s sheds work to reach out to and support their participants. Meanwhile, Dr Sylvia Kauer of the University of Melbourne describes her work on the development of a mood-tracking app and gives practical information on where to access similar apps that support those with depression.

One of the major impressions a reader will be left with after completing Other States of Mind is the sheer diversity of mental illness and its manifestations. Kathrine Clarke writes with insight about the phenomenon of self-harming, while Joshua Arandt, in one of the more experimental pieces, captures the manic brilliance of the voice of an acquaintance.

Carmel Pardy sets out “to really capture what it is like for someone with trichotillomania”. Writing in her “ninth month of not pulling [hair]”, she speaks with immediacy and perceptiveness about this condition and the steps she took to overcome it. Hers is one of a number of inspiring stories in the section titled ‘Determination’, and one can imagine her account being a valuable resource for readers struggling with this compulsion, just as other readers might seize upon Kath Courts’s ‘Recovery Road’ on her eating disorder, or Rag & Bone Man publisher Keira de Hoog’s revealing interview with Kristen Hammond about postnatal depression.

Other States of Mind operates on a number of levels: as a resource for sufferers, their friends and relations that addresses any sense of isolation they might harbour; as imaginative writing that educates readers and appeals to their capacity for empathy; and as a contribution to what, in health education, is becoming known as “the medical humanities” and the broadening of professional awareness.

If I have given the impression that the anthology is a depressing reading experience, I would like to reassure potential readers that its contributors consistently link their experiences to practical and imaginative forms of restoration and recovery. David Rennie’s account of art and photography; Mic Eales’s transition from “positioning a rifle barrel in [his] mouth” to his immersion in his artist’s studio; and Anne Rigg’s on the value and impact of creative practice in recovery from trauma – these and other essays glow with creative intensity.

In fact, the whole book – with its vivid and varied use of design, intricate motifs, arresting photography and colour illustrations allied to searching and brave writing – testifies to the capacity of shared creativity to counter suffering and foster awareness in others.

Other States of Mind is available from Rag & Bone Man Press.

Christopher Ringrose is an Adjunct Associate Professor of English at Monash University. He is the co-editor of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing and the book series Studies in World Literature, and is a poetry reviewer for the Australian Poetry Journal. His poetry has won awards in England, Canada and Australia, and he has published critical work on modern fiction, literary theory and children’s literature.

Latest

  • I am very pleased to read such a positive and thoughtful response to this book – of which I am a proud contributor. Thank you.

    However, I would like to redress an error in interpretation : my piece was a discussion about the value and impact of creative practice in recovery from trauma. It is not about art therapy – which is a very different thing. As a practising visual artist working in trauma recovery, I have tried long and hard to validate the place of creative practice rather than therapy in enhancing people’s lives, post-trauma.

    It is the immersion into creativity, art skill development, creative expression backed by knowledge of the arts and how artists work that give survivors of trauma the imagination and scope to express themselves – and all their desires and complexities.

    Over the years art therapy has become the response to anything that puts arts and recovery, self expression, and/or well being together. Rarely is it about arts practice. I would like to remind readers that arts practice has been doing this for millennia.

    It is in stepping away from therapy and immersing themselves in life-affirming arts practice that is one step in liberating survivors of trauma from the clutches of victim-hood.

    Many thanks. Anne Riggs PhD Artist.

  • Chris Ringrose

    Thank you, Anne, for that nice comment — and for the helpful correction and additional information. I now know more about creative practice/arts practice — and wish I’d got the distinction between that and therapy clear in my head before I wrote the review. I thought your piece in ‘Other States of Mind’ was inspiring, by the way. Chris R

  • Chris Ringrose

    ps I have changed that sentence in the revised version of the review above

  • Pingback: Book Review: Other States of Mind | KatClarke()