Mental Health and the Follies of our Time
The range of mental health issues plaguing our times is infinite. Depression, bipolar disorder, and suicidal tendencies are some of these mental health issues our times are coping with. Mental health awareness is, therefore, imperative. Unfortunately, mental health is largely talked about in hushed tones rather than openly. In most cultures, it is a taboo that is often discounted as a wayward spirit. In today’s parlance, it is often described as the lack of something – either faith or a positive mindset. Time has shown that it is easy to discount something that one has never experienced. The famed adage, “people fear things they don’t understand,” rationalizes the way mental health has been dealt with. It is no surprise that most sufferers choose to deal with their demons on their own.
In literature, the discussion of mental health remains largely in the dark. Nonetheless, there are writers who are more than willing to account for their experiences through their works. Sidney Sheldon, in his memoir, The Other Side of Me, wrote about his struggle against bipolar disorder. Perhaps the most famous of these works is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Trudging the same path is Ned Vizzini through his young adult work It’s a Kind of a Funny Story.
“I told you, Noelle, everybody has problems. Some people just hide their crap better than others. But people aren’t going to look at you and run away. They’re going to look at you and think that they can talk to you, and that you’ll understand, and that you’re brave, and that you’re strong. And you are. You’re brave and strong.” ~ Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story
It’s Kind of a Funny Story relates the story of 15-year-old Craig Gilner who is living in a Brooklyn neighborhood with his family. Naturally competitive and ambitious, he studied his way to admission into the Executive Pre-Professional High School a prestigious and exclusive preparatory school. After the long and arduous admission process, Craig soon became overwhelmed by the school’s unrealistically high academic standards, resulting in stress that inevitably led to eating and sleeping disorders, and ultimately suicidal thoughts.
With suicidal thoughts swirling all around him, Craig finally consults a psychiatrist who prescribes him Zoloft. For a brief period, his moods took a reversal. Believing he was cured, he stopped taking the medicine which consequently resulted in more intense depressive fits. How will he cope with or repress this uncharacteristic surge of suicidal ideation?
In the time we live in, we face all kinds of pressures from all corners – from our jobs, our schools, our friends, and, unfortunately, even from our families. This forces us to suppress our thoughts and emotions because doing otherwise is perceived as a sign of weakness. We hide behind masks and utter words to reassure the people around us that we are doing fine when it couldn’t be further from the truth. Just like Craig, we hide our personal trouble behind a facade of a smiling and happy face.
Vizzini handed the readers a task – to unmask Craig and dive deeper into his world, understand his motivations. As several layers of the story are unveiled, it becomes clearer that Craig’s story is about being yourself, a recurring theme in many a work of young adult fiction. The struggle of finding one’s self amidst pandemonium is a daily struggle. Anyone can easily relate to Craig’s internal turmoils.
“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.” ~ Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story
But there is something that sets It’s Kind of a Funny Story apart from its contemporaries. Vizzini relentlessly wove into the rich tapestry of his work the themes of mental health. In a way, Craig is an alter ego of the author who, himself, was briefly hospitalized for depression. Through Craig, Vizzini shared his experiences from this sojourn into what most would refer to as the “loony bin”. Mental health and mental health awareness is the main foundation upon which the narrative was built on. What Vizzini also underlined through his work is the universality of this sensitive subject.
Vizzini’s discourse on mental health was uncomplicated. This was further amplified by his steady and straightforward storytelling. It is, after all, easier to write about things that one has experienced. This unfortunate experience of being locked up in an adult psychiatric ward rendered the narrative an authentic and truthful quality. There are times when the narrative reached a plateau. This was, however, negated by the narrative’s more insightful and poignant facets.
The hubbub of New York City is in stark dichotomy to the story of Craig. It, however, forms a credible representation of our minds – complex, rambunctious, and complicated. In its own sphere, it is pulsating with life. The stories of the people that make it might be rendered barely palpable by the din but it will never suppress these tiny voices. No story goes unheard, no story goes untold. Vizzini and Craig would, later on, discover that no one is ever alone in their struggles.
Yes, Craig’s story portrays dark a dark phase in his young life. Ingeniously, Vizzini reminded his readers that behind the proverbial dark clouds, the sun is still shining. Despite the heavy subject, the book was brimming with hope. He tells Craig, “you are never alone in your struggle. People will always be cheering for you.” Vizzini also underlined that recognition and admission of one’s mental struggles play a critical role in winning the virtual battle against one’s mind. Confronting reality and one’s demons are the key to addressing this critical issue.
“Its so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint-it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.” ~ Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Seven years after the book’s publication, Ned Vizzini would, later on, take his life. However, what he has accomplished with It’s Kind of a Funny Story is undeniable. His authentic portrayal of a teenager’s struggles – the mental breakdowns and the feeling of loneliness because of his personal circumstances – made it soar. The theme might have made the narrative relevant but Vizzini’s writing rendered it with a sincere tone and a credible voice.
Craig’s story echoes the follies of our time. Vizzini reminded his readers that mental health is a looming issue that must be addressed. By taking the first step, Vizzini contributed to beating the stigma. Yes, we are still far from fully embracing this relevant and timely subject but we are slowly making dents into what has been a daunting fortress. It’s still going to be a long haul but the fight is on and the dream is that someday, no one has to fight depression or bipolar disorder or any form of mental disorder, alone.
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I have always been interested in how depression, suicide, and mental awareness in general are portrayed in literature. They easily pique and interest me. I personally feel that it is a theme that is largely underrepresented even after Sylvia Plath’s successful The Bell Jar. It works like It’s Kind of a Funny Story which renews my faith as writers are becoming more transparent about their struggles. Yes, the story is in the guise of young adult fiction but its poignant and authentic voice makes it resonate with power and relevance. What happened to Vizzini is unfortunate but I am thankful for his work for it gave a voice to the marginalized, people who cannot voice their fears and anxieties because the world views it as taboo.
Author: Ned Vizzini
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 444
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right college to get the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.
About the Author
(Photo taken from Wikipedia) Edison Price Vizzini was born on April 4, 1981, in New York City. He grew up primarily in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City. He attended Stuyvesant High School and Hunter College in Manhattan.
Vizzini’s career began with the publication of an essay he submitted to the New York Press, an alternative newspaper. His works in the alternative newspaper earned him an invitation to contribute a teen-focused article to the New York Times Magazine. In May 1998, his essay, Teen Angst? Nah! was published in The New York Times.
His first novel, Be More Chill, was published in 2004. 11 years after its publication, the book was adapted into a musical. His second novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, was published in 2006 and is touted as his most successful work. His third novel, The Other Normals, was published in 2012. The following year, The House of Secrets was published. It was a collaboration with Chris Columbus. His essays and literary criticisms were published in prestigious publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon.
After years of struggle with clinical depression, Vizzini took his own life on December 19, 2013.