Growing up in the US in the 1970s, I was acutely aware of the missing conversation around mental health. My brother had schizophrenia, and I found myself turning to books for insight. I wasn’t interested in medical textbooks or self-help guides; I wanted stories that would help me understand the experience of living with mental illness. But the offerings back then were slim. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sybil and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: all of them painted a bleak and scary picture.
By the 1990s, a new wave of books had appeared: Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind and A Beautiful Mind. Finally, narratives in which people experiencing serious mental health issues were not defined by them. Even as they struggled, the protagonists had careers, families, passions. These stories bridged the gap between the mentally ill and the well; in fact, they revealed that people, all of us, fall somewhere along that spectrum.
Such books were part of a cultural shift that has continued to gather pace since. What a relief it is to hear the language around mental illness changing: speaking of "a person with schizophrenia" rather than "a schizophrenic". (As a friend said to me, we don’t talk about "canceriacs".) These changes have come about through many different channels. Brilliant campaigns such as Mind’s Time to Talk and the Royal Family’s high-profile involvement in Heads Together have started to shift attitudes in a big way. Even more powerful, perhaps, has been the increasing willingness of ordinary people to share their own struggles and successes. And books, alongside movies and journalism, have been an important part of that ongoing conversation.
In the past few years, bestselling writers such as Bryony Gordon and Matt Haig have made great strides towards abolishing stigma, and the appetite for these stories spans the globe: translation rights for Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive have sold in more than 25 territories. Statistics show interest in mental health is a strong international trend. In terms of Nielsen categories (tracking Coping with Problems and Illness, Self-Improvement and Psychology), there was growth of 27% in the UK in 2017 year on year. In Australia the growth rate was 56%, in New Zealand 72%, in Ireland 29% and in India 11%.
I couldn’t be more passionate about publishing these life-changing and, in some cases, life-saving books. For example, in May Bluebird publishes Jonny Benjamin’s The Stranger on the Bridge, a memoir of the fateful day on Waterloo Bridge when a stranger stopped to talk with Jonny and literally saved his life. Jonny, who lives with schizoaffective disorder, believes it’s paramount the publishing community embraces testimonies reflecting the hope and recovery that is possible with mental illness. As he points out, there are many more hopeful books about people living with physical challenges than there are for those coping with mental health issues. It is wonderful to be part of a wave of publishers redressing this balance. In the next few years I hope we will hear from an even wider range of writers across the spectrum of race, class and gender so we can better mirror the experiences of the population.
Jonny rightly feels we must stop seeing mental health as an "us" and "them" topic. Educator and author Natasha Devon agrees. Her mission is to reclaim the word "mental" so that it ceases being used thoughtlessly as an insult. She wants to encourage people to stand shoulder to shoulder, so that "mental" can become a term that unites rather than isolates. Her book A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z launches during Mental Health Awareness Week and aspires to give readers a vocabulary to describe their experiences so they can be shared and normalised.
Natasha also draws our attention to an absolutely crucial issue: the danger of books, however well-intentioned, acting as triggers for mental illness. In the past, for example, some memoirs have been used as virtual how-to guides for eating disorders. Natasha challenges us to think harder and to do better in both YA and adult fiction and non-fiction.
Even as attitudes change, however, mental health services are being decimated. Books are sometimes the only stop-gap while people wait for treatment. As publishers, we play a powerful role in raising the profile of mental health issues, fighting stigma and helping people find support for their wellbeing before a crisis hits. We owe it to our readers to rise to the challenge.
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