Mental illness isn’t sunshine and roses, but the seriousness with which it’s spoken—or not spoken—about has created a weird, hush-hush stigma that prevents people from seeking help or knowing how to help those around them. British comedy writer Amanda Rosenberg drives a bulldozer through that stigma in her debut essay collection, That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill.
Splitting her life—and book—into two sections, BC (Before Crazy) and AD (After Diagnosis), Rosenberg charts her own history with mental illness alongside broader reflections on the cultural implications of being mentally ill. Her essays are short and easy to read, with each passage truly earning its place in the bigger story.
After a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, stay in a psych ward and misdiagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Rosenberg received a later-in-life (but correct) diagnosis of bipolar II, which the National Institute of Mental Health broadly defines as “a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes.” Rosenberg describes her depressive episodes as feeling like her head is “clogged up with a toxic sludge,” while manic episodes mean she’s “impulsive and obsessive” and finds it difficult to articulate how she’s feeling. “Everything [is] CAPS LOCK.”
How was she not diagnosed earlier? Largely because, as a part British, part Chinese woman, she didn’t fit the archetypal “mentally ill” person (either a brooding, misunderstood straight white man or an off-the-handle straight white woman). The thing is, she reminds the reader, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. “It’s not just straight, white, ethereal-looking people who get depression. Asian people are depressed. Black people are depressed. Queer people are depressed. Trans people are depressed. People with disabilities are depressed.”
Passages on being a part of a minority group with a mental illness are especially poignant. She has nothing against seeing white characters deal with mental illness, “But when you’re a non-white kid and the only people you see on-screen are white, it seems like they’re the only ones who experience mental illness. Not just that—they’re the only ones allowed to have a mental disorder.” She writes passionately about the need for broader representation, concluding that on-screen mental illness, in addition to being white and heterosexual, is often glamorized. “Either it’s dark and dramatic—unlike day-to-day depression, which is at best super dull—or it’s quirky and fleeting, like a flash sale of Zooey Deschanel’s wardrobe.” She applauds Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as one of the few programs that’s getting it right.
While meditations on the state of media are bigger picture, Rosenberg also shines when giving actionable, everyday advice. One chapter serves as a not-so-gentle reminder that, however well-intentioned, an outsider’s input on a person’s mental health is at best counterproductive and at worst extremely harmful. Yes, she’s tried yoga; she’s still depressed. Her suggestion? “The only time you should give anyone advice on their mental well-being is if they ASK for it.” In another chapter, Rosenberg interviews her husband, Pavel, about the highs and lows of being in a relationship where one person struggles with mental health. A few takeaways? Don’t try to be your partner’s therapist, don’t focus so much on one person’s mental illness that you forget to nurture your relationship, and remember that even if you’re the person in a partnership who doesn’t have a diagnosable mental illness, you’re allowed to feel depressed or anxious.
That’s Mental is a darkly funny, highly intimate book that feels at home alongside titles like Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy or Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking. Which is to say, it’s extremely essential reading.