Comics don't always have the best track record when it comes to portraying mental illness. In superhero stories, mental illness is often associated with violence and villainy. There are, however, other, often personal, comics that can open your eyes to real human experiences with mental disorders.
Just a heads up: many of these comics deal with self-harm, suicide, and other issues that can be triggering to some individuals.
Darryl Cunningham worked as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric ward and witnessed the realities of mental illnesses and their symptoms. Psychiatric Tales combines science, history, and anecdotes to demystify and destigmatize mental illness, and Cunningham's stark artwork can be deeply affecting. You can read portions of Psychiatric Tales online in their pre-press form, including "People With Mental Illness Enhance Our Lives," "Dementia Ward," "Suicide," "Schizophrenia," "Cut and Delusions," and the last chapter.
2. Hyperbole and a Half, "Adventures in Depression" and "Depression Part Two" by Allie Brosh
Allie Brosh turns her manic humor on her own depression in a pair of comics that are both deeply personal and explain brilliantly the sense of hopelessness, exhaustion, and self-loathing that comes with depression. It's also a reminder that relief can come from unexpected (and sometimes completely nonsensical) places, like a shriveled-up piece of corn found beneath the refrigerator.
When cartoonist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she was in a manic phase and not eager to seek treatment, fearing that medication would impair her creativity. But after she was hit with a major depressive episode, she started her journey toward reconciling her illness and treatment with her creative life. Marbles is a look at bipolar disorder from the inside, capturing the seductive qualities of mania and the ambivalence some people feel about treatment and medication.
The artist once famous for The Thin H Line and Sexy Losers (both NSFW) has created a sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes tender, often relatable series of comics about the daily struggles of life with depression. Decidedly unclinical, depression comix instead gets into the heads of depression sufferers and the people around them, exposing many of the tragedies of depression: how it encourages sufferers to mask their true feelings, the sense of worthlessness that comes with the illness, and how sufferers can shove friends away just when they're desperately in need of social support. However, he'll also capture the occasional moment of happiness and love.
Mental illness isn't a straight line from diagnosis to recovery, and sometimes even nailing down a diagnosis can be harder than it appears. Khale McHurst chronicles her journey with disordered eating and the tangled web of depression and anxiety tied up in it. She is upfront about her sessions with therapists and dietitians, her body dysmorphia, the appeal of pushing herself when she's not eating. and the problems she continues to struggle with.
better, drawn is an online collection of comics by various artists who are dealing with long-term mental and physical illnesses: anxiety, PTSD, social phobia, heart disease, cancer, dissociation, and more. If you're looking for a series of comics that cover a wide range of health topics in a variety of styles, this is it. The above snippet is from a comic by crazygoingslowly.
Unlike the other comics on this list, Look Straight Ahead is a work of narrative fiction, although it was inspired by Elaine Will's own experience with what she describes as a mental breakdown. Her protagonist, Jeremy Knowles, is suffering from bipolar disorder with severe delusions while trying to cope with high school and the bullying and peer pressure that come with it.
Adam Bourret's award-winning autobiographical webcomic appears to be available only on Facebook, but it's worth paging through the album to read a tale of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that looks nothing like what you see on television. Bourret is plagued by obsessive, intrusive thoughts that get stuck in his brain, affecting his life and his relationships, especially when he treats his disorder as a heavy secret.
The Public Insight Network, WBUR, and the comics news magazine Symbolia collaborated on this piece, interviewing a psychiatrist who treats post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans as well as a veteran suffering from PTSD. This short comic addresses not just the symptoms of PTSD, but also the sense of "moral injury" that people can feel when they are asked to betray their sense of right and wrong.
Rather than focus on any one particular mental illness, The Next Day explores the persistant suicidal thoughts that can accompany mental disorders. The book consists of interviews with four survivors of near-fatal suicide attempts—discussing their family histories, their dark thoughts, and their experiences with trying to end their own lives—accompanied by John Porcellino's stripped down illustrations. The Next Day also exists as an interactive film from the National Film Board of Canada. You can watch it now, but prepare to come away from it shaken by the participants' experiences.
There are, in addition to these comics, numerous other comics related to therapy (including Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? and Philippa Perry and Junko Graat's Couch Fiction) and addiction (including Jonathan Ames' and Dean Haspiel's The Alcoholic and a recent essay by Julia Wertz), as well as comics that sensitively portray mentally ill characters (such as Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole). Do you have a favorite mental health-related comic or other resource? Post it in the comments.