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Images of the Mind: An Interview with Darryl Cunningham

Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Stories About Mental Illness is a hard-hitting look at very real images of mental illness, culled primarily from Cunningham’s experiences working in a psychiatric ward and also from his own personal battle with it. The book, newly released, is getting acclaim for its upfront honesty and daring coverage of something many don’t like to discuss. We talked to Cunningham about what it was like to create this book.

What prompted you to create this book?

I worked for many years in mental health, first as a healthcare worker, then later as a student nurse. I worked primarily on an acute psychiatric ward, where I saw many people suffering these illnesses firsthand. I met people from all walks of life who were suffering a range of illnesses, that included schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and many others. It was when I became a student nurse that I started suffering my own mental health problems: extreme anxiety, leading to a severe depression. I found that I couldn't continue my training and had to drop out of the course. Devastating for me, as I'd invested so much in my career. 

It was these intense experiences that prompted me to create the book. For years I'd been keeping a diary, and as a result, I'd amassed a huge amount of material about the day-to-day running of a psychiatric hospital. I'd always been able to draw, so it seemed quite natural for me to start drawing up these experiences in comic strip form. It was because of the huge and positive response to the strips I had from readers of my blog that I began to achieve some level of self-worth again, and because of this, was able lift myself out of depression. 
What kind of audience are you hoping the book will reach?

Everyone. Not just people who suffer these illnesses, or the people who have to care for them, but the general public, who appear to know so little about this set of most mysterious illnesses. Mental health is an issue for everyone.

Was it difficult to relive these stories again, especially putting them down on paper?

The only area I found difficult was in discussing my own mental health problems, which I do in a chapter at the end of the book. I was concerned I might be revealing too much about myself, and that I might be judged harshly, or thought foolish. I needn't have worried. People responded extremely well to my personal story. Low self-image, depression, loneliness: These are experiences many people can relate to. My own story turned out to be more universal than I realized.

Do any of the stories particularly resonate with you now?

There is a chapter in the book about suicide. I was unfortunate in my years working on the acute wards to witness two suicides: a poisoning and a hanging. Both terrible events that stayed in my mind vividly for years. 
What do you think is the biggest misconception about mental illness, the one you most hoped to combat through this book?

That there is a strong connection between mental illness and violence. There really isn't. There have been many studies that support this. If a person is not violent before they suffer a mental illness, let's say schizophrenia, then they are unlikely to be violent when they have the illness. In fact, sufferers of illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to be the victims of violence than is the rest of the population. This is because they are odd, stand out because of their strangeness, and are feared because of it. The few notable cases where the mentally ill commit violence tend to get a lot of publicity, because of the sensational nature of the act, and this tends to make a powerful, and wrong, impression on the public.

It is with substance abusers, alcoholics and drug addicts, where the connection with violence lies. You're much more in danger from a drunken individual than schizophrenia sufferer.

Tell us about the distinctive art style you use in the book. How did it “fit” the mood of the stories you were telling?

There are several reasons for the style. I wanted to make it simple and easy for myself to do. I didn't want to overcomplicate the visual look. It had to be sharp and easy to grasp. I'd previously seen the book Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which is a cartoon novel about the author's life growing up in Iran. She'd also taken a very simple drawing approach to her subject and this had worked very powerfully. It showed me what could be done with this approach.

Each of the stories is interspersed with background information on the particular mental illness being presented. How did you verify all this information to be sure you were presenting everything correctly?

I ransacked the internet researching each subject. I also drew on my two years as a student mental health nurse where we covered these subjects in great detail. 
What are you working on next?

I have two graphic novel book projects on the go. I'm working on a children's book called Uncle Bob Adventures. And I have a science book project where I'm taking on controversial scientific subjects, like the Andrew Wakefield/MMR vaccination scandal, homeopathy (is there anything in it?), the supposed NASA hoax moon landings, evolution, and climate change. I've posted early versions of these chapters on my blog, where, shall we say, there's been an energetic debate (that's putting it mildly). It's not been unusual for my blog to get 80,000 views a day once I've uploaded these strips, and hundreds of comments, both for and against. The chapter on the MMR vaccine is to be published shortly in the student version of the British Medical Journal.

-- John Hogan