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Graphic Medicine Novels: Psychiatric Tales

 Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness

Psychiatric Tales


Psychiatric Tales


Bibliographic Record

 Title  Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness
 Author  Cunningham, Darryl
 Illustrator  Cunningham, Darryl
 Mental Illness  Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression
 Publication Date  2011
 Publisher  Bloomsbury
 ISBN  978-1608192786
 # Pages  160
 Color Profile  Black & White
 Worldcat Link
 Amazon Link
 Annotator  Tina L. Hefty


Darryl Cunningham spent several years working as a healthcare assistant in a psychiatric facility. During that time, he kept a diary of his observations. These are presented in comic form in Psychiatric Tales, a collection of stories about mental illness. Much of the book is focused on busting stereotypes and dispelling fear. In the chapter called “It Could Be You”, a man loses the ability to care for himself due to his schizophrenia and is subsequently detained under the Mental Health Act. In “Darkness”, a woman’s depression becomes more difficult to manage due to a bad relationship. In “People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives”, Cunningham discusses celebrities with bipolar disorder, including Winston Churchill, Judy Garland, Brian Wilson, and Spike Milligan. In “Suicide”, a woman suffering from severe depression unexpectedly kills herself at the facility. There are also chapters that discuss mental illnesses more generally, focusing on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The book concludes with Darryl’s own history battling mental illness, featured in the chapter “How I Lived Again”.


In the introduction, Cunningham mentions being inspired by Marjane Satrapi. As such, the artistic style is rather similar—solid black fill alongside simplistic and straightforward illustrations. There is very little dialogue as most of the text in the book is devoted to Cunningham’s commentary and observations.

Mental Illness Narrative

In the chapters that cover bipolar disorder, many of the classic markers are observed, including abnormal energy, lack of inhibition, elevated mood, lack of sleep, feelings of grandiosity, poor judgment, and racing thoughts. In the chapter entitled “People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives”, Brian Wilson’s story shows how untreated bipolar disorder can lead to delusions and psychosis.

Symptoms of schizophrenia are also presented, especially in the chapter called “It Could Be You”. The man featured in the tale experiences intense paranoia and social isolation and is unable to trust the staff who are trying to help him.

Depression is heavily featured, and we see symptoms including insomnia, loss of interest in activities, inability to concentrate, suicidal ideation, and feelings of worthlessness.

Humanistic Revelations

As was intended by Cunningham, Psychiatric Tales confidently busts many stereotypes related to mental illness. For bipolar disorder, Cunningham dispels the notion that many artists with bipolar disorder would be nothing without their eccentric diagnosis. He explains: “An elevated mood will bring with it an explosion of energy and free-flowing ideas. But the ingenuity and ability to think creatively has to be there in the first place. Mental illness will tend to hinder the creative process as much as help it” (p. 61).

In regards to schizophrenia, Cunningham undermines the belief that people with the diagnosis are inherently violent. He describes how murders committed by people with schizophrenia are incredibly rare, and that the public’s fear is often spurred by media sensationalism. In fact, he states that people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims than perpetrators due in large part to the stigmatization of their diagnosis.

For depression, perhaps Cunningham’s most insightful observation is that suicidal ideation can be hard to spot. He experienced this personally when one of his patients committed suicide unexpectedly. He describes what happened: “The patient had given us no indication that she was suicidal. Not a hint of what she had planned was picked up by staff. Her anger and impassivity had successfully masked her true thoughts” (p. 112).


In the book’s introduction, Cunningham explains the book’s purpose: “Psychiatric Tales is intended to be a stigma-busting book. This is needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remain widespread in society” (p. ix). To that end, he certainly succeeds. Some drawbacks to the book include its short story structure—the brief snapshots of people with mental illness never allow the reader to fully connect with a particular character. Additionally, Cunningham has very strong convictions about medication and fails to acknowledge that, unfortunately, drugs do not work for everyone.

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