For some, mental illness looks like tears, smells like prescription pills, and feels like sandpaper. To others, it feels like being locked in an invisible box while others yell at you, telling you to get out, to move. To me, it felt like standing straight and still in a room full of people laughing while I remained unable to say a word.
The individuals who contributed their stories to Breaking The Silence: The Stigma of Mental Illness, by Polly Fielding, have faced a range of issues, from the silence of abandonment to the clamor of abuse and violence.
Whereas a large number of works on mental illness and the stigma that so often accompanies it tackle the topic directly with definitions and statistics, Breaking The Silence takes a different approach. Instead of giving definitions, the book chronicles the experiences of fifteen individuals as they fight the symptoms, emotions, and stigma of clinical depression, postpartum depression, dissociative identity disorder, PTSD, and other conditions.
Fielding implies that the collection is meant to shed light on the reality of mental illness and how the reactions of others impact those who suffer. But while I found the stories to be compelling, raw depictions of mental illness, they are missing a discussion of stigma.
I read the individual stories as someone with firsthand experience with mental illness. Each writer details their family background and how various members impacted the onset of depression, PTSD, DID, and other ailments. Many of the contributors write that they are able to pinpoint the exact moments that triggered their illness, something I can relate to as a reader and a fellow survivor of trauma. Some also note, albeit very briefly, when they dealt with discrimination, lack of acceptance, or outright rejection from others due to their illness — but this was not a consistent feature in the stories, leaving me a bit confused by the book’s title.
Instead, the book read as if I were at a trauma-recovery support group and each person were taking their turn. There is value in that kind of communication, but it missed the mark in presenting a cohesive response to the stigma of mental illness.
What the book did really well was tell stories. I was gripped by the honesty and by the depth of feeling and emotion conveyed by the writers, particularly one who dealt with sexual abuse similar to that which I endured. I applaud and commend each writer for stepping out in bravery to tell their stories and to do so with such raw grace. In that sense, this work is a triumph: it strips off the layers of “I’m okay” and “Everything is all right” and allows the reader a look inside.
On the other hand, and the reason I would not recommend this for the topic it is intended to cover, the book achieved only that: it broke the silence for these individuals. While it provided an open forum for these survivors to speak out about their lives, illness, and, in some cases, recoveries, it achieved only reader awareness. When I set the book down, I did not think about the stigma associated with mental illness. Instead, I was just saddened by the stories I had read.
In order to change a perception, you have to not only enlighten someone, but also educate them. While this book covered the enlightenment part, it didn’t touch education. The fact that many of the individuals wrote very little about recovery or even how the stigma has impacted them in the long term left something to be desired.
Plus, the book’s disjointed approach distracted me from its impact. With numerous grammar, spelling, punctuation, and structure problems per page, I found myself struggling to stay engaged with the content, and instead wanting to reach for a pen to fix some things.
As a collection of raw and honest testimonials of mental illness, Breaking The Silence is a beautiful compilation of real life and real pain that pulls on the heart strings of the reader and inspires compassion. But as a tool intended to expose and begin to remedy the stigma associated with mental illness, it falls flat.
Breaking The Silence: The Stigma of Mental Illness
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2015
Paperback, 184 pages