More than 45 million people in the United States—or one in five adults—experienced mental illness in 2018, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health and Services Administration (SAMHSA). Despite these statistics, mental health is still shrouded in stigma. SAMHSA found that only 43 percent of adults in the United States with mental illness sought treatment in 2018, and according to a 2004 article published in Health Services Research, it takes an average of 11 years from the onset of symptoms for a person to seek treatment for mental illness. Admitting mental illness is still difficult, even as more authors write books about navigating mental illnesses—ranging from Bipolar II disorder to schizophrenia—and hashtags like #TalkingAboutIt populate social media.
That’s one of the myriad reasons British comedy writer Amanda Rosenberg’s collection of essays, That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill, is so crucial. Her 240-page book functions as part-memoir and part-guidebook (though she doesn’t consider herself a mental-health expert), and explores the good, the bad, and the laugh-out-loud funny aspects of living with Bipolar II disorder. By delving into an array of experiences, including dating with mental illness, being hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and looking to pop culture as a salve, Rosenberg is doing something extremely important: disrupting the stigma that keeps so many people silent about their pain. She writes, “The more we talk about mental illness, the more we normalize it, which is great, and important, and great.” That’s exactly what her candid book achieves.
Rosenberg spoke to Bitch about the value of humor when approaching difficult subjects, the beauty of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and how we can all support our loved ones as they learn to live with mental illness.
It takes a lot of courage to be as vulnerable as you are in this book. How did you get to the point where you were comfortable enough to write and sell a book that’s this raw and open?
I’ve been writing about mental health since I was diagnosed. I’ve been writing through it—even [through] my first suicide attempt—for a while. When I first started writing about [mental health], I was doing it for myself. I didn’t write for an audience per se because no one was reading my stuff, so I never went into it thinking, I’m going to write raw, funny, or candid [stories]. I had none of that. But the more I wrote, [the more people] slowly but surely started to reach out and say, “This [story] really helped me. I feel this way as well.” I didn’t realize that [my writing] was helping people, so after six years of honing my writing about mental health and working hard to help people, [being vulnerable] came naturally.
There’s so much about navigating mental-health issues that’s serious and sometimes scary, but your book still approaches the topic with humor. How did you balance the seriousness of mental health with the levity of some of your own experiences?
The only way to make [writing a book] less scary is to make fun of [my experiences with mental health]. I [don’t] make light of [mental illness]; I never punch down on people who are suffering from mental illness. I wanted to punch up on the experience of having a mental illness because that made it less scary for me, especially in the early days. [Mental illness initially felt] like this insurmountable obstacle; it was so terrifying that humor was the only way I could get through it. I felt so incredibly alone and I couldn’t find [pop culture about mental health] that I could connect with.
Then I found Allie Brosh’s illustrated [webcomic and blog] Hyperbole and a Half. [It offered me] language and made [my mental illness] less scary. I’ve also talked to people who live with mental illness in hospitals and rehabs [about] humor making mental illness easier to talk about because it’s so heavy sometimes. Living with a mental illness can feel so heavy every goddamn day, so it’s great to laugh every now and then. I wrote this book specifically for people to not feel alone and to give them a laugh because [having a mental illness] is absolutely exhausting.
Having a mental illness is exhausting; getting out of bed is hard sometimes. I have depression and anxiety, and I am a forever-recovering Agoraphobic. It’s a difficult experience to put into words.
As we both know, trying to get out of bed is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It’s so easy to see us as lazy, but even people [without mental illness] say, “It’s hard to get out of bed when you’re depressed. That must be tough.” But it still feels like they don’t really get that mental illness is physical as well as mental. When you’re in [the throes of mental illness], you feel like there’s an elephant sitting on your chest. You want to get up, but you can’t.
It’s not like we want to relax in bed; it’s so horrible being in bed when you’re depressed. You want to do something that will perk you up. So that whole cycle of wanting to do something to perk yourself up but being unable to is very hard to describe to someone who has never felt it. I’m not trying to justify myself [or my experiences] to the mentally well. This book is for us. We know what [mental illness] feels like, and I wanted to connect with other people who know what that feels like.
You have a chapter about suicide that’s so visceral and real that I could literally feel it. In that chapter, you write, “Suicide is at once so unfathomable yet so painfully real.” Why was it important to include that specific chapter? How did you approach writing it?
I am not an expert about mental health or suicide, but I wanted to share my experience in order to clear up a few things [about suicide] that people might be misunderstanding. It was important to me because I hadn’t publicly discussed suicide before. I have been writing about my mental health for a while, so it seemed disingenuous that I would write an entire book and not put in [a chapter about suicide]. Just looking at the word “suicide” is still terrifying—not just for people who’ve [attempted] it but for people who don’t [understand suicidal ideation]. There’s a lot of misinformation about suicide, like the notion that it’s selfish, that people have a choice, and that [it’s odd for] celebrities to take their own lives because they should be happy. These are all dangerous [assumptions].
There’s an overwhelming [sense] of shock when a celebrity takes their own life. It’s almost unfathomable: How on Earth could a person do this? Didn’t they care about their family? And then come the judgmental comments like, “They had so much to live for.” I hate that. I wanted to dispel [those notions about suicide] because it’s a painfully real reality for [many people], including celebrities.
Toward the end of the book, you write about returning to work after your first suicide attempt and being handled by your manager and your coworkers with “kid gloves,” which wasn’t exactly helpful for you. How can we better support the people in our lives—our friends, our family members, and our partners—who are in the throes of a mental-health crisis?
Everyone’s experience is different, but I would’ve liked someone to listen without judgment and to let me know they’re [around] if I ever want to talk. I don’t deal well with friends who reach out with, “Just checking in. How’s that depression going? Do you want to talk about it?” Don’t do it like that. I appreciate someone asking, “How’s it going?” or talking about something [unrelated] to mental health, like “Did you see Succession last night?” I cope better when people check in and make it seem more natural, like a continuation of our friendship rather than [feeling obligated] to check in on me. I hate [when] anyone [tries] to give me advice about mental illness. Don’t give people advice about their mental health unless you’re their therapist or a mental-health professional.
There’s a section of the book that homes in on finding a therapist and, when necessary, getting on the right medication regimen. What advice would you give someone who is seeking a therapist for the first time? Most importantly, how would someone know if a therapist is a bad fit?
I actually didn’t find a therapist; my therapist found me in a psych ward, and I just stuck with her. So I’m not an expert on finding a therapist, but it’s horrifying that [so many people] don’t have access to good therapists and don’t even know what constitutes a good therapist. We’ve got Yelp, but we shouldn’t be Yelping therapists in 2019. In terms of finding a good therapist, though, sometimes you have a gut feeling about a person. Go with that gut feeling. Also, give therapy some time; it takes time to get used to someone and for someone to get used to you, learn your mind, and understand your background and your [specific] trauma. That [knowledge] doesn’t just come from two or three weeks [worth of sessions]. If you have a gut feeling that a therapist is not right for you, then try to find someone else. But if you feel like they’re pretty good, give them a good chance. Chances are, you have a lot to unpack, and that will take a while.
You write, “The media aren’t as interested in the whys as much as they are the hows” when it comes to covering mental illnesses and, more specifically, suicide. Why is that? How can the media do a better job of covering mental health?
First and foremost, there are media outlets, specifically online publications, that sensitively handle suicide and follow the guidelines [for ethically reporting about mental health]. There are people doing it right, but there are also people, especially on splashy broadcast news, who are approaching it more dangerously to get viewers. [Viewers] are not as interested in the why because the how is so titillating. People are so fascinated by the morbidness of taking your own life that they want to at least touch a little bit of that darkness themselves. That’s what the news gives them because [that’s what] they want.
It’s really sad that we don’t have [more] discussions about what goes through someone’s mind [before they die by suicide], the struggles they’ve been through, or their [quest] to get help because there’s something terrifyingly fascinating about someone taking their own life. Guidelines [for reporting on mental health] say that you shouldn’t [use the phrase] “commits suicide” because [the word] “commit” criminalizes suicide. [All] people should know that. A journalist reported on a person I knew who took her own life and the story said she “committed suicide.” Underneath the tweet [of the story], I responded, “Can you change this? Because it’s not permitted.” I [added] the link to the guidelines. There were so many angry people asking questions like, “Why can’t we say ‘commit’?” Then, they began attacking me personally: “This bitch got a book called That’s Mental. She hasn’t taken her meds yet. That’s why she’s saying it.” I had to mute the thread.
You write in the book about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend being one of the only TV shows that accurately depicts mental illness. What can that show, in particular, teach other TV shows and movies about how to portray mental health with nuance
There are a lot of shows [that handle mental health well], like BoJack Horseman, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend humanized mental illness. It showed that you can live with mental illness without being [considered] dangerous or a criminal. You can be a “normal person” who’s living with a mental illness. You can be funny. You can experience all different facets of emotion and life. Rebecca Bunch is [not just the] hyperventilating, hugging your knees, rocking in the corner, riddled-with-mental-illness kind of person who’s typically portrayed in TV shows and movies about [mental health]. She’s just a normal person living her life [who happens to] have a mental illness—and I love that. I also love the humor; that was right up my [alley]. It’s humor about things that I was cringing about being open about, and Rachel Bloom was putting it in song and fucking dance. It was incredible
When you’re in [the throes of mental illness], you feel like there’s an elephant sitting on your chest. You want to get up, but you can’t.
You write, “It’s easy for companies to say they care about mental health, but it seems rather difficult for them to put that into practice.” What would it look like for an employer to have good mental-health policies? What should employers be considering when they’re putting those policies together?
In the most ideal world, mental health would be a completely separate department in companies. The last thing you want to do is go to human resources; I’d always been terrified of that because what does HR do? They go to the bosses. I don’t think they’re there to help. Your company doesn’t care about you. So in my dream world, there would be a separate department that doesn’t report to the main company where [employees] could receive free therapy whenever they want. But that’s so unrealistic. We’re so far away from that, and it’s devastating.
People will come up with excuses to take a mental-health day to [keep from calling] it a mental-health day because they’re not comfortable [being honest about] why they’re really calling out. It’s a culture [problem] too. [At many of] these companies, especially where millennials are overworked and underpaid, managers aren’t educated [about] mental health or [aren’t trained] to be sensitive to [their employee’s] health. Telling a manager is what I always found terrifying. We can talk about mental health in the workplace in the abstract, but when it comes down to it, you have to tell an actual person [when you’re struggling]. That’s scary when your mind is falling apart; you can’t get out of bed; and there’s an elephant on your chest. Yet, when [many] people hear “day off,” they immediately go to, “You’re taking a vacation?” You have no idea how far from a vacation a mental-health day is. Companies can send an email that says, “Wednesdays are mental-health Wednesdays,” but it has to be consistent. Mental health has to be [a priority] every single day. It’s not a one-off. You have to change a company’s attitude toward mental illness or nothing’s going to change.
There have been a number of books released in 2019, including Esmé Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias and Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, that specifically deal with mental health. Why do you think publishers are so invested in these books and that they’re finding such a large audience?
I love that these books are finding a wide audience. We need everyone’s stories. When I was growing up, I thought white people were the only ones who got depressed because that’s all I saw on TV shows and movies, so I’m loving all these books. I may not have the exact same mental illness, but we can all connect to some [element of their story]: the perseverance, the grit, the struggle. Publishers are latching onto these books because people want them. It’s awesome. When I had my first suicide attempt, there were hardly any books written by women that I connected to. I just couldn’t find them because they weren’t as prevalent. I was flipping through the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), which is not the sexiest of reads. It isn’t a barrel of laughs. I’m so grateful that people are sharing more stories about their mental health.
Who do you hope your book reaches and what do you hope they take away from it?
There are three types of people I hope [the book] reaches: people who have not really experienced mental illness; people who are currently struggling, don’t know how to articulate it, and are feeling lost and lonely; and people who have been deep in mental illnesses. I really want to give them all a laugh. I want to give them some relief. I wrote this book for Amanda six years ago, and I hope it reaches someone who is where she was then. More than anything, I want people to know they’re not alone.