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Posts Tagged ‘mental health issues’

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A major part of this blog’s mission is to put the right book in the right hands at the right time. This is powerful stuff – and no easy task. This can mean helping a book group to find a thought-provoking read for their next month’s gathering (Best Books for Book Groups). It can also be about helping people at holiday time to select the perfect book to give as a gift (Pages in the Pub). Recently, however, we have begun moving deeper into the community to connect people with the pages that might right for them. “BOOK BUZZ” is a successful initiative we now run regularly in local schools that has kids “talking books” with their peers, while simultaneously raising money for their libraries. Most recently of all, in fall 2017, we launched an effort to help bring book discussions to our town library that focus on medical issues. This is what we call “Novel Medicine.”

So why “Novel Medicine”? Try to think about it this way: “medicine” and “healing” are things that can happen both in and outside of an exam room or a hospital. In creating this series, we wanted to further explore the powerful learning and behavior change that can happen outside of a formal medical space when someone reads a book and talks about it – be it a novel, a memoir, or a collection of poems. This group is intended to put the right book in the right hands at the right time in a slightly different way: it aims to more pointedly explore the intersection between reading and dialogue, and health and wellness.

Discussions have to this point been moderated by Book Jam blogger Lisa Low Cadow, who is by night an avid reader and by day a health coach at Dartmouth Health Connect, a primary care clinic in Hanover, New Hampshire. (And, they have recently been hosted by the Norwich Public Library.) Her interest in this idea grew out of the thousands of hours she has spent in exam rooms with patients as well as in her role as facilitator in a Women’s Health and Wellness Group which over the past five years has read over ten books together. During this time, she has noticed the transformative effect that books, especially novels, can have on self-understanding and healing.

So far on our “Novel Medicine” journey we’ve read two graphic novels and a memoir, all of which are reviewed below. Each of these three works are excellent and inspired rich and robust conversations. For the two graphic novels we chose, we took advantage of a free program being offered by the National Library of Medicine (NILM) called “Graphic Medicine” which lends complete kits to groups or individuals interested in running this kind of discussion. Each kit includes six books, a discussion guide, as well as clinical information about the medical conditions being discussed. (For more information on the International 2018 Graphic Medicine Conference that is being held this August at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, just downstream from us, click on the following link: https://www.graphicmedicine.org/2018-vermont-conference/.)

We’d love to know your thoughts about this initiative and any books that readers might suggest that we might consider next.

FC9780452295544.jpgMy Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor (2009) You may have already seen the powerful  TED talk given by author Jill Bolte Taylor. It is one of the most viewed videos in their collection because her experience of having a stroke at aged 38 was a powerful one  — and the way she communicates about her learning is extremely moving. Taylor’s book has an equally profound effect on readers. Up until she had her stroke, Taylor was a Harvard trained neuroscientist at the peak of her career. She was both teaching about and continuing to study the brain. Then one morning, out of the blue, she experienced a stroke on the left side of her brain which profoundly impacted not only the rest of her life but also her understanding of the human experience, spirituality, and of how healing traumatic brain injuries needs to be approached. A must read for: all who have a brain(!) — but also for those who may have experienced a concussion and want to learn more about how the mind works and how to better heal it.  ~Lisa Cadow

FC9781592407323.jpgMarbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney (2012).  In this brave, candid, and brilliantly illustrated memoir about her bipolar disease, Forney takes readers on the roller coaster ride of her experience from her early twenties before her formal diagnosis, through the waves of her initial manic episodes (that include uber creativity as well as hyper-sexuality; reader beware), down to the depths of her depression, and through the difficult slog of figuring out how to effectively prescribe (and take) her medications.  This memoir is brutally honest – Forney doesn’t shy away from things that are raw and even potentially embarrassing. It is such an essential read for those trying to better understand what bipolar really means, what it is like to live with it, what the support of love ones can mean when challenged with behavioral health issues, and how management IS possible. Don’t underestimate the power that drawings can have on conveying a storyline and accompanying emotion! This was one of the most powerful books I read in 2017 and one that I have now recommended to numerous patients and friends. ~Lisa Cadow

FC9780375423185.jpgEpileptic by David B. (2006) – What is the experience of someone who grows up with a sibling who develops epilepsy at age 11? How does it affect family dynamics? How does it affect siblings who are trying to grow up and become independent during this time? How do friends, family, and the kids on your street treat you? What effect do multiple seizures and strong medications have on a human body? So many questions – and this book offers David B.’s experience and personal answers. This fascinating work was immensely popular in France (as it was originally written and published there in the late 1990’s) and has now been translated into multiple languages. It is intimate and takes the reader into a very personal place and space in the Beauchard family, through their family tree, and then into the adult life of David B. in Paris as a student and then as an aspiring cartoonist. His art is affecting and is heavily influenced by his fascination with mythic creatures and battles, heroes and monsters. One of the most memorable aspects of his work are the three “beasty” best friends, imaginary beings who shadow him through his childhood and help support him through his brother’s illness. Also fascinating is how David B. represents the changing and aging of his brother, sister, and parents. Particularly recommended for those who have acted as caretaker or caregiver during a loved one’s chronic illness.   ~Lisa Cadow

Stay tuned for more on this new Book Jam program; and in the meantime, enjoy these great books.

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Maybe it was the fact that a few of our friends spent this autumn struggling with mental health issues, or maybe because one of us works in healthcare and October was National Mental Health Awareness Month in the USA, but very unintentionally it appears many of the books we have read recently contain a mental illness theme. And please, before you stop reading because you think our picks will be depressing and “who needs that in November (or what some Vermonters call ‘stick season’)?”, please know that these books are amazing and thought provoking. Plus, we could argue many great characters in great literature exhibited mental illnesses, we just don’t think of the books they were in as about illness (think Hamlet, Mrs. Dalloway, Holden Caulfield).

Perhaps mental illnesses are specifically labeled in these more recent books because the societal taboo around discussing mental illnesses is thawing a bit, and authors find themselves able to address mental illness in ways they could not have tried previously. Or, perhaps not, but whatever these authors’ rationales, we are glad for at least a few reasons. One, we truly hope it means that the world in general is more aware of and ideally accepting of people with mental illnesses. And two, it means some great new books are out there for all of us to read. While we have read many books that could work in today’s post, we limited ourselves to two recently published fiction choices and two slightly older memoirs.

We hope you will read them, even if mental illness makes you sad or uncomfortable, because they are all really good books.

Two TRULY AMAZING works of fiction

Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (2013) – Wow, I cried at the end of this one. I completely understand why this novel was the COSTA book of the year for 2013 (awarded to fiction written by writers in Ireland and the UK). Told in a completely engaging manner in the first person by the main character Matthew (although you don’t know his name for awhile), this FIRST novel by Mr. Filer explores mental illness, what triggers it, how people help and hurt the patient’s prognosis, what mental health hospitals try to accomplish, how funding for services for mental health is precarious, and how the mentally ill function so well for so long, until they don’t. Mr. Filer is a mental health nurse (and I would add outstanding novelist) and his compassion for his patients comes through throughout this novel. The narration is brilliant; and, the situation is heart-breaking, unbelievably moving, bittersweet, and above all compelling. As London’s Daily Mail says, “you’re going to love it.” (This novel is currently available in Europe, and will be available in the USA in January 2015. You can pre-order it in the States; and for now, we link this pick to the Waterstones web site.) ~ Lisa Christie

Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (2012) – In a little over 200 pages, this author charmed me with a narrative of a son trying to figure out his unusual family. A family orbiting the ups and downs of his mother and the manifestations of her bipolar disease. Uniquely and beautifully infused with compassion, grace, lots of humor, insight and love, this gem of a book is a must read for anyone looking for a good story or anyone whose lives are touched by mental illness. (Note: This would make a great Book Club book — well-written, short, and on many levels profound.) ~ Lisa Christie

Two insightful memoirs

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1992) – The author of Sophie’s Choice struggled with depression for years.  Years ago, a friend of mine, whose father also struggles mightily with depression, told me that his father stated this brief memoir by Styron came the closest he had ever read to describing what living with a mental illness feels like. He also said his dad recommends it to anyone living with someone suffering from depression. While admittedly sounding completely bleak, this book has been described as conveying “the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery”, and my memory of reading it years ago would second this assessment. ~ Lisa Christie

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (2012) – Written to help make sense of the death of her daughter, this book is full of moving and poetic prose, profound thoughts and insight into life with long undiagnosed mental illness, as well as the author’s own process of aging. While Ms. Didion is frustratingly very vague about the exact nature of her daughter’s illness and even the cause of her death, she refers throughout this lyrical memoir to the “signs” all along the way that something was troubling her daughter, and that in retrospect maybe help could have arrived in time. I am so glad I picked this up thinking I could use a good memoir, never knowing it would be a perfect companion pick for today’s post. ~ Lisa Christie (Lisa Cadow also supports any Didion selection)

This post is dedicated to Dr. Jerry M. Wiener, a psychiatrist who spent a significant portion of his career trying to lift the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses, and to his tremendous partner Louise Wiener whose professional life has been dedicated to educating children and their families.

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