When I was in my early 20s I read a book called Tell Me I'm Here by Australian writer, broadcaster, film maker and social commentator Anne Deveson. It's the story of her son, Jonathan, and his struggle with schizophrenia. It is also her story as a mother, watching her son's torment, able to do so little to help.
Tell Me I'm Here is perhaps the only book that has brought me to tears in public. I can still recall sobbing rather helplessly but as unobtrusively as I could on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne as I read Jonathan and Anne's story. I also have vivid memories of excerpts of the book - images and emotions and struggles - that are seared somewhere in my mind despite reading it almost twenty years ago.
At this point in time I had completed about two thirds of my study in my psychology but I had not had any exposure throughout my education to mental illness or what's known as abnormal psychology. My university specialised in 'rats and stats' - statistics and the basics of experimental psychology such as learning, memory and thinking, social psychology and developmental psychology. We never touched on illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or even depression and anxiety.
Nor had I had any first hand experience of mental illness. As far as I was aware no-one amongst my family or friends had struggled with psychological ill health. So it was Tell Me I'm Here that gave me my first insight into schizophrenia - an illness that affects about 1 in 100 Australians. An illness that, I've come to realise, is very misunderstood.
About ten years later I somehow came across a book called Recovered Not Cured by author and artist Richard McLean. This was McLean's story of his own experience of schizophrenia - from its onset and the reactions of family and friends, through his treatment and ultimately his recovery, although as the title suggests, there is no cure. McLean's story really stuck with me and continues to do so today. The combination of his words and illustrations explained so well the struggles and challenges that he endured.
The more that I read and listen and learn the more I realise how important it is that we all hear stories like these, that we seek out stories from people who have experienced mental health challenges.
Yesterday I watched a TED talk by Eleanor Longden, a British woman who describes the onset of schizophrenia and what she has learnt from the illness. She eloquent and, like Deveson and McLean, her personal story is very, very powerful, giving the rest of us some insight into what it is to suffer from this illness.
I don't work in the area of mental illness or clinical psychology. I never have. But the more that I read and listen and learn the more I realise how important it is that we all hear stories like these, that we seek out stories from people who have experienced mental health challenges. For all that we can listen to medical experts and advocates talk about what mental illness is, hearing it from those who have lived it is what will make the difference to our understanding, our empathy and our willingness to include rather than exclude.
If you'd like to watch Eleanor Longden speak, here's her TED talk.