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Psychiatric Tales, by Darryl Cunningham

October 28, 2012

I stumbled across this a few months ago whilst researching my medical humanities project in the Wellcome Collection. It looked interesting but I (somehow) kept myself from reading the whole thing. I did, after all, have work to do. However, with time and inclination at my disposal, I’ve finally got round to reading it.


Psychiatric Tales is a comic book by Darryl Cunningham about mental illnes, drawn from his experience as a psychiatric nurse. It is divided into chapters devoted to certain themes or illnesses, such as self-harm and suicide, bipolar disorder, depression, et cetera. The comic is drawn in a deceivingly simple black-and-white style while a cartoon version of Cunningham narrates the chapters.

After medical humanities, I had a rotation in psychiatry, which I took to like a duck to fascinating and oft-misunderstood water. The speciality provided fertile ground for my mind to wander and wonder. With that said, it was a given that I would enjoy this book.

But there’s a strong chance that I will enjoy any thoughtful and well-written book. So there.

Cunningham writes for a lay audience. That, combined with the simple art style, make this easily accessible for all. Patiently, he explains what mental illness is (and isn’t) and breaks down some of the multitude of myths and misunderstandings surrounding it, especially schizophrenia. The patients he draws aren’t case studies, they are real people, often victims.

Though this book is incredibly enjoyable, it’s not exactly a cheery book. Humour, where it is, is black (and white). Depression, dementia and suicide are not happy-go-lucky subjects and the book does get quite dark in places. But this is the reality of mental illness. Sometimes it is bleak. Incredibly bleak. However, there are brighter moments where Cunningham points out that even with serious depression or schizophrenia, recovery is possible. A real life is possible.

The last chapter details Cunningham’s own mental troubles in the process of writing the book. Carrying on with the subjects and themes explored earlier, there is grim reading there. However, he finishes the chapter – and the book – on an optimistic high. Rightly so.

It should be obvious now but I enjoyed this book. With my conflict of interest detailed above, the confirmation bias was inevitable. But it is a good book, especially as a primer to mental illness. Cunningham gets the tone just right and it is a shame that there isn’t more out there like this. However, the real mark of how readable this book is that I read this on the sofa between my girlfriend and my housemate, neither of whom enjoy psychiatry nearly as much as me.

By the time I’d finished, they both asked to read it next.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2012 2:33 pm

    Thanks for the kind review. I like the last sentence especially.


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