Wednesday, 3 June 2015

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

Update: The positive reaction to this post is more than I could possibly have dreamed for so thank you all very much.  For those of you interested in MH books there is the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge which provides links to lists on fiction with various MH themes that you can join in with and connects you to other blogs. 

I read this book as part of #MentalHealthWeek in 11-17th May.*  One of the reasons I participated is because of the huge unawareness of the inequality of the quality of treatment for MH issues.  As part of ‪#‎MentalHealthWeek‬ the Wellcome Trust investigates the spending on Mental Health compared to cancer.  Both diseases are statistically likely to affect 1 in 4 people, but people with MH issues have £9.27 spent on them, next to £1,571 for cancer.  The biggest killer of men under 50 is suicide.  Yes, cancer is terrible and I lost someone I loved most dearly to cancer, but I also lost someone to suicide, which probably would have been prevented with better NHS funding. 

*Yes, I know it is June <insert excuse here>. Better late than never anyway.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5 (meaning this book was OK but had major downfalls) 

On the surface, this should be a book I enjoyed.  It focuses on Craig, an American schoolboy 'who tries to kill himself' and is admitted into a psychiatric ward.  There was and is a lot of praise for this award-winning book and given that Ned Vizzini died in 2013 I have to say I am very reluctant to review this because I didn't enjoy it.  

For me, the stand out positive feature was that Craig was very relatable.  I could relate to his worries about academic performance and the pressure that school/universities create especially with the fact that workload can easily snowball once you fall behind.  It does nicely highlight how the spiral of depression can begin and some of the difficulties caused by living with depression.  (Because everyones experience of MH issues and symptoms are different there is never going to be a 'catch-all' book describing every type of symptom.)  There was also a good diversity of characters.

Now to the negatives.  A few parts I found boring and I have to admit to resorting to speed-reading to simply get the book out of the way (I'm not a fan of DNFs).  My other gripe was a few throwaway comments that made me deeply uncomfortable e.g. comparing anorexics with skeletons in closets.  I am sure the author meant no offence but either way, I found them crude/cringeworthy.  I will admit when it comes to MH issues I am overly sensitive/critical.  It does really eff me off when people trivialise MH illnesses e.g. by saying that they are 'OCD' because they clean up straightaway.*

A more subjective/personal possibly cultural point.  I agree with Stephen King's On Writing when he says that dialogue attribution (such fancy terminology) should be kept simple in terms of "he said"/"she said".  Vizzini used "he's like" and it really grated on my nerves.  It was like listening to a good song with random scratches in; it definitely detracted from the novel.

I am sure that other people will enjoy this book and it will help them, but this isn't one for me.

Postscript: This book prompted a fascinating discussion on a Facebook group and I feel that the complexity of writing on MH is often overlooked.  The complexity/worry is this: a author can write on MH with a straightforward happy but risk their book being criticised as 'naïve', 'unrealistic' or  'fairytale-like'.  On the other hand, an author can portray MH as a lifelong struggle but risk causing despair and a feeling of hopelessness in a reader which could have fatal consequences.  It is a very fine line between these two extremes and perhaps authors of MH carry a greater burden of responsibility than others.

Book facts
Original publication: 2006
Publisher: Hyperion
Pages: 444
Book cover shows the outline of a head filled with a hand drawn map

*There is a movement to stop using 'gay' as an insult, and rightly so, but there isn't a similar one for MH e.g. that person is 'mad', a 'schizo' or a 'psychopath.  People with MH are far more likely to be victims than they are criminals, and if they are criminals it is probably because the system has failed them.  I am pretty sure you know all this already so I am going to leave it there.

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  1. Interesting subject MH. I thought you might appreciate some stats from the NL concernng our MH dd 2014:
    44.7% of men and 42.3% of women in the
    Netherlands have had a mental health problem at some point in
    their life. The most common disorders are mood, anxiety and substance disorders, self
    reported by 1 in 5 people (respectively 20.1%, 19.6% and 19.1%). These are followed by attention deficit or behavioural disorders, which are prevalent in approximately 1 in 10 people (9.2%). Schizophrenia was found in 0.5% of the respondents. There are about 160.00 cases of severe MH issues in NL.

    1. Thank you yes they make for an interesting read! I can't believe how similar the stats from the NL are with the UK - they're almost identical.

      If you like documentaries, Bedlam is a great one to watch, it is filmed in Maudsley, the UK's oldest psychiatric institution. It shows patients treatments, how certain factors have contributed to a patients problems and dispels a lot of myths. I'm not sure if you can watch it in the NL but it might be worth googling. Louis Theroux has done some fascinating documentaries on MH if you get the chance to watch them too.

  2. Cancer is a terrible thing, but it's seriously overfunded with regards to how many people it affects. I read somewhere that if the NHS spent as much money on lesser-known but more easily treatable illnesses as it spends on one kind of cancer drug it could save about three times as many lives.

    Also, the skeleton thing sounds awful! I'm amazed it got past an editor to be honest.

    1. Yes it is very much overfunded especially with the charities. I am sure MH patients would love a service like MacMillan nurses because it is so difficult to get heard on a system that is swamped. Yes, Terry Pratchett has said similar things e.g.

      I know! I wasn't sure if it was just me being overly sensitive but I did consider crossing it out with a black Sharpie pen so it wouldn't have to be read again. Thanks for dropping by too :-)


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