COMMUNITY VOICES | Beyond awareness: Mental Illness Empathy Month


May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a good time to look back on what two great writers have said about their experiences with mental illness. These accounts remind us that even though we’ve made great progress with diagnosis and treatment, we are a long way from fully understanding the darkest corners of the human psyche.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of William Styron’s groundbreaking national bestseller, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Styron, best known for The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, has been haled by many as the first writer to truly capture the “full terror of depression’s psychic landscape.” Darkness Visible illuminated the torment of depression and the taboos of suicide, but whether it increased awareness and decreased stigmatization as much as was hoped and predicted is hard to say. People keep dying. By some accounts we lose more lives today to suicide than to traffic accidents and homicide.

One such loss has reached a notable anniversary in 2014. Ten years ago author Paul Gruchow, winner of both the Minnesota Book and Lifetime Achievement Awards and often called “a contemporary Thoreau,” committed suicide at the age of 56 after battling depression for much of his life. Gruchow was aware, but unable to understand the state of his mental health, and upon self-consideration, like Styron, took to “setting these reflections down” with the hope that “one or more valuable conclusions might be drawn” from his experience with mental illness. The resulting memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published after his death and became a Minnesota Book Award finalist.

Letters chronicles the journey of an injured, yet curious mind, asking questions and writing toward answers. The answers rarely come, but they provide opportunities to ask more questions, leading to deeper awareness and greater empathy. Gruchow’s easily approachable book is stylistically different from Styron’s, but is often compared to Darkness Visible for its depth and honesty.

When I first picked up Letters to a Young Madman, I flipped through the pages, landing at a “chapter” only three lines long. Under the title Clinical Depression 2, Gruchow offers a quick way to differentiate the basic blues from a crippling disorder. “Ask yourself why you are depressed,” he writes. “If you can answer the question, you do not have clinical depression.” Leafing back to the two-page Clinical Depression 1, I was struck by the stoic simplicity of the second sentence: “Clinical depression is as much like the ordinary blues as a wart is like cancer.” This effortlessly grounded the abstract for me, and I couldn’t put the book down. While reading Darkness Visible, I wondered what happened next. In reading Letters, I wondered why those things happened.   

Asking “why” led Gruchow the naturalist to study the way we relate to the land, lakes, animals, and one another. In Grass Roots he says, “The prairie teaches us to consider the uses that may be made of our setbacks.” The same may hold true for our mental health system and ourselves. Gruchow recognizes that the frequent thought of suicide, common among the severely depressed, is infrequently mentioned by them for fear of hospitalization. “What if,” he wonders, “patients felt free to talk openly about these thoughts and were given guidance in how to use them to ward off rather than to accomplish death?” 

I may never truly understand why Gruchow, in the depths of depression, spent three days trying to tell his body to simply put a stamp on an envelope. Nevertheless, his writing begins to erode what Styron refers to as “the outsider’s inability to grasp the essence of the illness.” That grasp is what we need to reach for. After so long, and so much attention, awareness isn’t the problem. Perhaps the month of May should be re-branded Mental Illness Empathy Month.