Mental Health Reading Challenge 2013

Leeds Book Club will be participating in the Arts and Minds Network‘s new project on raising awareness of mental health issues. 
The Why…
A few years ago, I inadvertently turned my mother off a whole swath of books with one flippant remark. 
Allow me to explain. 
I have someone in my life who lives with mental health issues. 
Most of the time, that’s by the by.
They just get on with it but every now and again, they suffer with mental health issues, or they live in spite of mental health issues. 
And – as is always the case with a new friend – I began to learn a little bit more about living with a disorder and the way that mental health difficulties are portrayed, just by having this person in my life.
A few years later, I went book shopping with my mum. We picked up a very popular thriller – one of those books that has brought saturation marketing to its knees and, despite our having very different tastes in our literary choices, we had both read it.
My mum thought the story had been all right, but nothing to get too excited about. I concurred, following up that it only worked because of ‘convenient crazy person’ bigotry, or (my preferred term) mad-person-itis. 
The Definition Bit:
What I mean by this is that the plot, crime and resolution only worked as a coherent whole because – as an audience – we are inured to that most useful of devices – blaming the mad person. 
Sometimes this is a stranger that unexpectedly shows up. However, more often than not, it involves creating a hidden back-story for a character, giving them a form of mental health disorder (the more controversial the better) and blaming the whole of the crime on them.
As an added benefit, an author doesn’t even have to provide a decent motive. After all, they are a crazy person. They don’t need one to head off on a crime-spee. Right? 
Most of the time, this device allows the reader the fallacy that a criminal couldn’t possibly be one of ‘us’ (one of the primary protagonists), it must be An Other. It must be someone who is fundamentally flawed, someone broken on the inside, someone…MENTAL. 
The truth of the matter is that when I was a kid, no one really talked about mental health problems, but it was recognised that you’d likely know someone with a few issues. 
Today, they estimate that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience some form of mental health issue in the course of a year. 1 in 10 children will suffer from a mental health issue at any one time
Oh, and in a glorious acknowledgement of our tendency to vilify rather than treat appropriately, only 1 in 10 of those incarcerated in prisons will have NO mental disorder.   
The Project
The Arts and Minds Network in Leeds is determined to use 2013 to raise awareness and promote positive mental health via the arts. (Tweet them @ArtsMindsLeeds)
They have compiled a reading list with Leeds Libraries, NHS Leedsand Leeds Waterstones. The plan is to read and review one book a month creating a conversation on and about the realities of mental health issues versus the depictions in the books and therefore the stereotypes that ‘regular’ people buy into. 
Here at Leeds Book Club, we think that’s INSPIRED! After all, I acquired most of my social skills from books (explains a great deal!) and I’m not alone. So many of us use literature to inform our day to day lives. Where information is clearly out dated (racist passages for example), it’s interesting to see how much society has changed. However, where changes are taking place in the contemporary world, the facts can all become a little fuzzy. The only way to really change a situation like this is to increase dialogue about it.
Each month, a variety of book clubbers will be providing a review of the book, paying special attention to descriptions, characters and plot that include those facing mental health issues. Hopefully, we will then take part in a vibrant discussion online, on social media and IRL at book clubs.
The List
Feb: The Silver Linings Play Book – Matthew Quick 
Mar: The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson 
Apr: I had a black dog – Matthew Johnson 
May: Why be happy when you can be normal – Jeanette Winterson
Jun: Poppy Shakespeare – Clare Allan
Jul: 01 – Birthday Letters – Ted Hughes
Jul: 02 – Ariel – Sylvia Plath
Aug: Tender is the Night – F Scott Fitzgerald 
Sep: Day – A L Kennedy
Oct: Notes from an exhibition – Patrick Gale
Nov: A life too short – Ronald Reng 
Dec: Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
This is just the starting point. I’d like to invite anyone who is interested to submit their own thoughts, reviews, recommendations, playlists, videos – anything at all to enhance our conversation. Ideally I’d love to have more than one perspective on each piece selected – particularly the Ted Hughes/ Sylvia Plath choices!
Where indicated, I’ll happily post blog posts anonymously – I appreciate that not everyone will want to discuss their personal reflections on a sensitive topic on a public forum like this. Obviously, on the other hand, I’ll also include links to twitter names, your blogs and so on.
Also, read any books that feature mental health? Then let us know – the good, the bad and the ugly!
*Update – like any other really annoying thing, my mother has subsequently informed me that since our conversation, she now notices mad-person-itis everywhere – in films, on TV and in books and it ruins her enjoyment of them. We both of us think its very lazy writing. 
She’s thrilled with me for pointing it out.

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