When it comes to understanding mental illness, most people fall into the category of “curious voyeur.” It’s undeniably interesting to watch the erratic and unusual behavior of the mentally ill from a distance, which is why we have shows like Hoarders and Intervention. So, while one’s own voyeuristic inclinations might compel you to pick up this graphic novella, there’s far more value to be found inside, even if some of it might be unintentional.
Darryl Cunningham, the author and illustrator, spent a number of years working toward becoming a certified psychiatric nurse before quitting the program due to the emotional toll it took on him, and some of these stories from this time are recounted here. Using a cubist, art brut style, he begins by describing a few cases in which he was involved, and all of them are genuinely interesting, if extremely minimalist. Not a lot of verbal details are given, just a barest summary of notable points, paired with a few chunky, black-and-white pictures. Each of these stories is interrupted with a semi-clinical explanation of why each patient behaves the way he or she does, which is valuable information. It works to explain the fact that mental illness is genuinely a biological problem, and not as it is commonly perceived. The subjects are not lazy or stupid and do not have anything that can be self-medicated—these are biological issues that cannot be solved by simply forcing the patient to think differently. Psychiatric Tales does a great job explaining this, and it would likely serve as an excellent tool for anyone who is coping with mental illness in their own family.
The chapters that only describe a mental illness, without tying it to an actual, concrete subject or experience, are slightly less effective. They become extended infographics, which have their place, but perhaps not in a book labeled Tales. One of the most effective points in the collection is a discussion of the idea that many clinically sociopathic traits are prized in today’s business world, and just how unhealthy this psychological climate is for the human spirit.
The book reaches a crescendo in the final chapter, in which the author describes his own fight against mental illness and how following his passion ultimately led to a happier life. Even though years of nursing school were ostensibly “wasted” by the author, this book is about making something from the wreckage of your original goals. It’s a reflection on the idea that no time is truly wasted if you grow from it, which is a good concept to always keep on hand, no matter what your situation is.
Aside from a few necessary violent and scatological stories (which are only pictured ambiguously anyway), Psychiatric Tales is a solid collection that dedicates itself to mental-illness awareness in a very effective manner. While it might be more practical than it is entertaining, this does not diminish its value in a collection.
Reviewed by Collin David on July 13, 2012