Sherry Ashworth lives in Manchester and has won a number of awards for her young adult novels. She writes both teenage fiction and comic novels for women. She is a member of the Authors Electric online Collective.
No one who saw them could fail to be inspired by the Paralympics. The achievement is the greater the harder you have to work, and so many Paralympians gave their all, and more. If one good thing comes out of the Paralympics, it’s the new visibility of disability. When the games were on, there were a number of amusing stories about everyday wheelchairs users being accosted by kids asking them, awestruck – are you a Paralympian? And indeed they all are, in their own way.
But I couldn’t help but think also of the hidden disability of mental illness. There are no games for the depressed, the psychotic, the bipolar. Here the stigma of difference is as huge as ever – fuelled by fear and ignorance. So hooray for mental health awareness week!
I have written a Young Adult novel entitled MENTAL. It’s the story not only of a boy, Luke, who develops a psychotic illness, but also of the effect this has on his family and friends. So what was my inspiration, and why did I want to do this?
I was lucky enough to be invited to run some writing workshops at Bethlem Royal Hospital in South London, working with the museum and archives there. I led some Year 9 boys in some writing exercises, and couldn’t fail to notice how powerfully they were affected by the things they found out. The place is pretty amazing as the hospital has been treating mental illness for centuries. I was prepared to find strait-jackets and other terrifying paraphernalia, and indeed there were some, but we also learned that in the nineteenth century the doctors at Bethlem were reasonably enlightened for the times. If you’re curious as to what it was like actually being a patient there, read Antonia White’s excellent novel Beyond the Glass. Or find out more about the artist Richard Dadd, who continued to paint while being treated at Bethlem.
The archives included accounts of patients and even diaries they kept. One affected me very profoundly – a young man whose psychosis was so true to him, he detailed it as if it really happened. We were all struck by his conviction and the power of psychosis. Interestingly, the writing the boys did centred on mental disturbance arising from war experiences – shell shock and the like. But I went away unable to forget about the nature of psychosis.
That was how MENTAL was born. It struck me that reality was only a collective agreement to say what’s real, and the so-called psychotic is simply experiencing an independent reality. Which is fine, until it becomes dangerous or a problem to them. So I set off to find out as much as I could about psychosis, by speaking to patients, doctors and other health professionals. In particular I was interested in the young adult experience – how easy is it to tell whether a teenager is just acting up, or in fact, ill? But at the same time I was fascinated by depictions of mental illness in literature, or the views we have of writers who suffered from mental illness. Some people write off Jonathan Swift’s misanthropy as mental illness – discounting his bitter views about society as he suffered from vertigo. No – he was a brilliant satirist, ill or not! Other writers such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath can be pigeon-holed by their mental health problems. Again, not fair – but then, are writers with mental illness among the very best we have – can mental illness also be a creative gift?
There’s another question here, too. Is it right for someone who has not suffered acute mental illness to write about characters who have? I say this because mental illness sufferers are more than capable of speaking for themselves. I felt a little uneasy about what I had set out to do on this account. But my fears were mostly alleviated by the research experiences I had. The sufferers I spoke to were happy to share their stories and seemed pleased that through a novel, more people would find out what life was like for them. I also discovered that not all mental health workers were like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The doctors and nurses I met were kind, well-intentioned, sometimes frustrated by lack of resources, but all dedicated professionals doing their level best to make a difference. At a community level, there are legions of poorly-paid workers helping recovering individuals to cope with their illnesses. Literature rarely celebrates them. The main villains, it seems to me, are the nameless individuals who constitute the system, or bureaucracy – that inhuman monster that slows everything down, makes you fill out form after form, and worst of all, sometimes fails to listen.
The more I researched, the more I discovered how much mental illness was around us. It was all too easy for me to find people to talk to. Everyone knows someone who’s been depressed or psychotic – we work with them, they are in our families – the difference of mental illness is all around us. And in us too. Even if we construct ourselves as normal or sane – are we really like that all the time? Have we all not been unhealthily obsessed with something or someone, paralysed by anxiety, defeated by the day before it’s begun? Trauma can leave us unwell – the effect of bereavement of other forms of loss – not one of us is immune from poor mental health.
This is when I realised that I had to write my novel for my own sake as well as for improving people’s knowledge of mental illness, and what really happens in modern mental hospitals. I wanted to give some hope too – I believe that if we have understanding and love, we can make a difference to the lives of mental health sufferers.
Click here for a Review of Mental on IEBR
Find out more about Sherry from her website
To buy Mental or other of Sherry’s published work click HERE