Category Archives: Mental Health Awareness Week

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is almost two books in one.  It starts with a brilliantly written, but fairly typical, coming of age tale about Esther a 19 year-old student struggling with decisions about what her future holds, coming into contact with the wider world for the first time in New York, and juggling her studies with dating and friendships and pressures to choose between career and marriage/motherhood.  Then things take a darker turn as Esther’s ‘eccentricities’ and anxieties become more extreme and she starts to lose control as her mental health slides into crisis.  If one didn’t know the history of Sylvia Plath I think one wouldn’t see this shift coming from the witty, sharp, well observed and cynical but fairly gentle and comic first half.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”

Esther is in many way a very lucky young woman (albeit most of her advantages have been earned through intelligence and hard work).  She has a scholarship to a top college, a supportive mother, she’s attractive and physically healthy, and her handsome medical student boyfriend wants to marry her.  On top of this she wins a prestigious internship to learn about and contribute to a bunch of New York magazines, this is more a prize than serious work as the organisers lay on parties and free gifts over the weeks of the scheme, but it is also a serious opportunity to make contacts and learn about the industry.  She should be on top of the world, OK the 1950s in the US aren’t the perfect time to be a woman but Esther has choices and opportunities most woman at this time would dream of.  The choices are part of the problem, Esther finds herself overthinking everything, putting extreme pressure on herself to live up to her high achieving childhood and youth as she enters adulthood.  The story is not all doom and gloom though, Esther is witty and cynical (while not always that nice!), some of her actions and observations early in the book had me laughing out loud.

This part of the tale I think everyone could relate to.  Esther’s main problem is that she doesn’t really know herself yet.  While sparkling on paper and on the surface she actually lacks inner confidence.  This is true of many young (and not so young) people trying to work out their place in the world.

The second part of the story shows that Esther has real problems above and beyond what most of us face.  Whether triggered by pressure or just part of her mental make up her mind fails to cope with life and she tips over into a kind of madness, she can no longer function normally and begins to act in a dangerous self-destructive way.  It is a stunning account of a mental breakdown from the inside and feels painfully honest.

The book is given extra poignancy by the knowledge, that most literature fan will have, that Sylvia Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30.  In places the book feel almost intrusive as it feels like we are seeing within Syliva Plath’s tortured brain and observing the condition that would one day kill her – a painful privilege given to us by a brilliant woman.

5/5

Zoe

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the bell jar

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Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Are you happy? He once asked Jude (they must have been drunk).

I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last

 

This is a brilliant and heart-breaking novel.

The main character is Jude St.Francis.  We follow him, and his friends, from young adulthood to middle age with detours into flashbacks along the way.

Jude’s childhood and adolescence was the stuff of nightmares.  Abandoned by his parents and then abused by those who should have cared for him.  Along with his mental scars this abuse left him horribly injured and physically disabled for life.  The focus is how he copes, or doesn’t cope, coming to terms with his past throughout his adult life.  As an adult he is a successful man is many respects with an impressive career, a good income, friends who love him and acquaintances who admire him but he can never escape the horror of his past and carries his childhood trauma with him his whole life.

As you may have gathered this isn’t a happy novel!  At times it is almost unbearably sad.  Jude is such a pitiable and compelling character and you long for him to find peace.  So it is not an easy read but nor is it a not stop tale of misery for the entire 720 pages!  Yanagihara inserts lighter moments to keep it just the right side of bearable, there is hope and joy in the friendships Jude manages to make, friendships that endure from his college days.  There is also a lot of content most of us can relate to.  As well and the more dark and serious struggles Jude has with his physical and mental health and haunting memories of child abuse are the more mundane dilemmas around career choices, growing up, moving from young adulthood to full adulthood and the transitions this involves.  Jude isn’t always the focus either, we also get to know his three closest friends who, while they have their own fair share of troubles, haven’t faced the living hell Jude went through as a young man.  So it is also a novel about growing up and finding your way in life.

I would recommend it to everyone.  It really moved me.  It also made me reflect on my own life at times.  Not many of us will go through what Jude did (thankfully!) but we all do have our own demons to face, our own painful memories to confront or forget, and our own life struggles.  It was a very human book, the focus was an extreme example of human suffering but I think through that came reflections and messages about the types of pain we all experience: loss, disappointment, shame, weakness.  No solutions offered I’m afraid, but the realisations that humans are bound by these common experiences and emotions was poignant.

5/5

Zoe

A Little Life

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See the Life Through Their Eyes – 13 YA Novels about Mental Health

Do you know someone that has a mental health condition? Would you like to know more about how hard are they struggling with their conditions? Would you like to find stories full of love, hate, sadness, happiness, tears, laughter, lost, pain, joy? Are you able to show empathy and patience towards all the people who need “someone to talk to”? We are not doctors, but we can be a friend, or a shoulder for someone that desperately needs it.

If the answer is YES, than have a look at the list bellow with books that shine a light on experiencing mental health difficulties. Young adult novels are powerful potions that can blow up the bridges between I’m fine and I’m not fine, and this stories remind us that above everything, we are Humans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Georgiana

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#MHAW16 – The Outsider by Albert Camus.

the-outsider

Part 1 – review

This is the story of Meursault a French Algerian living in the early 1940s.  He is an outsider.  On paper you wouldn’t think him an outsider, he has a good job, a girlfriend, friends and a mother.  He is an outsider because of how he feels.  He approaches life with a neutral indifference, whether he is burying his mother, starting a new love affair or committing a crime – his approach is the same, matter of fact indifference.

I hope you aren’t thinking ‘that sounds weird and kind of boring’ because it isn’t (OK I do admit that as it is all written in the first person the first chapter reads quite strangely until you get used to his tone).  There’s something about his approach to life that is uplifting and his say what you see descriptions of the world around him actually create some beautiful moments.  My favourite bits are when he is describing his neighbour’s relationship with his dog, his cold observations of what he sees and hears as his neighbour comes and goes from the apartment building paint a moving portrait of the complexity and frailty of human emotion.  There is also a lovely sequence where he sits on his balcony all day and describes what he sees looking down on the street, you get a real sense of the sleepy bustle of Algiers on a hot Sunday afternoon just from his basic unflowery relating of what he can see in front of him.

Meursault does enjoy life in a way too.  He has moments of raw pleasure swimming in the sea, having sex with his girlfriend, eating a good meal etc.  He just doesn’t imbue them with meaning or emotion, they are what they are, here and now, pleasurable and fleeting.

In terms of plot, and there is a plot even though I feel this isn’t a plot driven novel,  Mersault’s mother dies in an old people’s home and he travels there to her funeral.  When he returns home he goes back to daily life and also forms a new romance and makes a new friendship.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, he commits a serious crime.  This is a very interesting point in the novel, just when you are starting to think ‘Well what’s wrong with not having conventional emotions?’, Mersault commits this extreme act – so is he mentally ill?  There are enigmatic clues that he might have suffered a trauma, he makes reference to feeling differently “before”, but doesn’t say before what, he also mentions having to abandon his studies but doesn’t say why.  Why did he do it?  The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the crime…I won’t tell you if questions are answered – read it to find out!

5/5

(N.B. this novel is very short, only about 100 pages, so do give it a go even if you think it’s not for you.  Even if you don’t like it it won’t be a hard slog)

Part 2 – The Outsider and mental health.

I read the outsider as it was recommended on a blog about mental health problems as a good book to read.  It appealed to me as self-help books just don’t, I always worry they will tell me what to do or try to ‘cure’ me and make me ‘normal’.  If reading to deal with mental health issues I much prefer something like this that explores issues without necessarily offering solutions.

I personally found the outsider extremely uplifting as someone dealing with mental health issues, it also made me think a few uncomfortable thoughts which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!  Meursault doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his approach to life, and I can relate to that.  Sometimes it is OK not to fit in and we don’t all have to act and feel the same.  The one size fits all approach you sometimes get to treating mental health can be frustrating when seeking help.  For example a therapist once told me that he could tell I had serious issues because I had laughed at “inappropriate things” at a previous session, I asked him what he meant and he repeated the phrase I’d laughed at – I laughed again!  I then stopped myself, did my sense of humour make me insane?  I found the quip I had made relating to death and suicide funny, darkly humorous, I still do today when I’m not in a period of crisis and am sitting calmly at my desk feeling perfectly cheerful.  Meursault goes through something similar, a priest wants him to repent for his sins and admit to believing in God and justice but he doesn’t so he won’t.  The priest becomes increasingly frustrated and Meursault starts to get bored.  It is a really good parallel with some of my experiences of therapy, the main reason I have given it up in the past has been boredom with the process, boredom with talking and boredom with listening to them tell me why I am as I am and how I should be different.

So is the conclusion live and let live, let’s all just be who we are?  Unfortunately not!  Meursault isn’t OK.  He does something both cruel, pointless and illogical.  It works out badly for everyone including himself.  Even he doesn’t seem to understand his reasons for his actions, and worryingly doesn’t even really question them.  So this book doesn’t provide the answer, but it provides lots of interesting questions and I found asking them of myself a positive exercise.

 

Zoe

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Books and Mental Health: The Shock of the Fall

“Mental illness turns people inwards […] It keeps up forever trapped by the pain of our own minds, in the same way that the pain of a broken leg or a cut thumb will grab your attention, holding it so tightly that your good leg or your good thumb seem to cease to exist.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

I really feel that this book tried as much as possible, within the confines of the written word, to take us into the mind of someone struggling to deal with the introspective nature of a mental illness. The reality that no one else can see these struggles can make a person feel they are going mad before the symptoms have begun manifesting themselves physically outside of their heads.

“I can only describe reality as I know it. I’m doing my best, and promise to keep trying.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

The Shock of the Fall is refreshing for not having a schizophrenic protagonist who spends the entire novel talking to himself and clutching his head in a dark corner of a room. I think Filer’s done a great job of giving more substance to something which can too often be viewed under one umbrella – not all mental health sufferers look the same, and not everyone deals with these issues the same way. In this book, Matt, despite his illness and outbursts, shows in his witty and often sarcastic observations of his life, that he is not defined by his mental health.

“Inside my head is a jigsaw made of trillions and trillions and trillions of atoms. It might take a while.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

This week is mental health awareness week, and relationships is the focus of the campaign this year – which I think is very important. Having been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) a few years ago, I have had to re-learn how to interact with people, to rewire and divert my thought processes so that I am not always assuming the worst and feeling terrible because of it. BPD is so wide and so vast, but to me, it means that on top of navigating a minefield of symptoms, I am always looking out for signs of rejection as a defence mechanism – whether in micro-expressions or brief changes in body language. This makes relationships difficult because BPD sufferers feel emotions intensely, and the slightest perceived negativity can send them into episodes of depression and self-doubt that can last days, and interacting with others during this period can be incredibly stressful. 

“[…] one thing I’ve learnt about people, is that they can always surprise you.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

One of the hardest things for a mental health sufferer to accept is that this illness is theirs whether they want it or not, and that can be a very isolating experience. This is why this week is so important in highlighting just how much a human presence can mean to someone like Matt, who felt often deflated and without a clue how to help himself, or accept help. Just like relationships take time to nurture, understanding the dynamics of mental health will take a long time. But all of us can make a small start by making a cup of tea for a struggling loved one, or even by picking up a book and being open about what we find in it.

 

by Lauris

 

Brent Libraries have great stock of mental health related books, whether factual or fictional. It’s never too late to start talking about mental health, and books always make great conversation starters.
Some helpful contacts, should you feel you need them:

Mind
15-19 Broadway, Stratford, London E15 4BQ
T: 020 8519 2122, Info line: 0300 123 3393
e: contact@mind.org.uk
http://www.mind.org.uk/
Samaritans
24 hour helpline: 116 123 (freephone)
jo@samaritans.org
samaritans.org
Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, Chris
PO Box 90 90
Stirling
FK8 2SA

Sane Line
Offering specialist mental health emotional support 6-11pm everyday.
You can also email through their website.
Tel: 0845 767 8000
Web: www.sane.org.uk

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What are you missing?

So far this year I’ve been reading lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, about missing people. That is, about people who go missing, and the people who miss them. Mostly the cause is abduction. I have a fairly good idea about why I chose these, though I can verify that it hasn’t been a purely conscious choice, I just, as is usual for me, went by books that caught my mind. Since this is Mental Health Awareness Week, the topic is very pertinent. As others who also have mental health that can be fragile will likely verify, at the peak of most severe illness, one’s very self feels to go missing. The theme of MHAW this year is Relationships, so a poignant and raw topic all round. When your self/mind/psyche/being feels to be AWOL, how on earth do you maintain the relationships you have, never mind cultivate new ones – having a relationship with your own self at those times can be even too much to bear. But it has to be done to survive, and such is the work of psychotherapy – and reading carefully chosen [whether by the conscious or subconscious mind!] books can indeed be part of this.

“What is this thing that happens? When disaster strikes and women come, with their cakes and their bandages, with their cups of tea and their soothing fingers. It’s the complicity of the birthing chamber, the laying out of the dead. They pick the bits of tragedy up off the floor and try to knit them together in some shape, the way I’d felt I could knit Carmel back to life. Not the way they were before, something lumpy and misshapen – but so there’s a whole again.”

The girl in the red coat by Kate Hamer

the-girl-in-the-red-coat-kate-hamerA few days ago I finished reading The girl in the red coat. It’s a seemingly understated book about loss. A mother loses her daughter, the daughter loses herself, the mother has lost her husband, the couple who abduct the daughter lose their way. Does the mother find her daughter? Does the daughter find herself? It is a novel about hidden powers, and the energy of love, betrayal and connection. It is rather a profound novel, and the quote above spoke to me deeply. It is highly resonant of a fairy tale, and if you’ve ever read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes you are likely to be moved by this book.

TAsylumWhat happens when ideas of safety, freedom, longing, sanity and damage collide? The Asylum, a strong thriller by Johan Theorin attempts to address these conflicts in a labyrinth of twists and turns. The protagonist, Jan, is missing someone from his troubled childhood. He is a staff member of a nursery attached to a secure psychiatric hospital, where children of the patients receive care. This, in a different way, is also about relationships and grief.DeepShelter

Right now I’m coming to the end of Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris. It’s set in London, which for me is always a win for bringing things close to home – psychologically speaking that is. It reminds me, in a way, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here we enter the literal underworld, a parallel world of fear and power beneath our very feet, our very heart. When we search for love and human connection, power can stand in its way, and ideas of freedom and responsibility seep in, too. There’s a deeper theme of loss in there as well, and but I will leave that to you to discover.

The damage that can ensue from someone going missing, whether physically or psychically – or both, transcends time and rationality. It threads into not only our relationship with those around us, but with the very self. It is a common theme in literature, as in life. Authors tackle it with depth and sensitivity. We see the scars on the psyche in glittering sore technicolour. Yet, it seems terribly hard for many people to actually talk about these kinds of themes with their nearest and dearest. That profound distress, that is often seen clinically as a ‘Mental Health Condition’, attracts such stigma in society, still. Many cases of such illness, however, and I count myself in this, are a result of the trauma of loss on all kinds of levels. The mind can break down under such despair and loneliness.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, therefore, perhaps take some time to ponder those times when you have experienced a sense of loss of self and/or loss of another, and open your heart to that and to the world.

Katie

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