What Ned Vizzini's 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' Taught Me About Mental Health
Some books can literally change how you feel. This is one of them.
When I bought It’s Kind of a Funny Story, I was 16 and depressed. The adults in my life didn’t help me to seek professional help or ask if they could support me in any way, instead they told me get out of bed and stop being lazy. That didn’t help me cope, and the only person I knew who was going through the same thing told me ‘at least you’re not as bad as I am.’ There were times when I believed them and others when I thought they were wrong, but through it all I never felt understood.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story changed that for me. It’s a young adult novel narrated by Craig Gilner, who is 15 and suicidal. He gets himself checked into Six North, a psychiatric ward (he didn’t mean to) where he stays for five days and looks for a constant or something to latch onto, which he calls an Anchor. Now, Craig is not a character I particularly like. He’s obsessed with the idea of sex, ignorant in all kinds of way even though he’s academically gifted; I certainly won’t forget him calling a trans-woman ‘he/she/it’. Re-reading this last week, I had to remind myself ten times that this book was published in 2006, that our social climate is more progressive now than it was back then and that hopefully, Craig would be more tolerant in 2018.
What this novel does well is helping with mental health awareness, depression especially. I remember when people found out I was depressed, they acted as if they couldn’t relate to me anymore. Some dealt with it by turning it into a joke, like Craig’s dad does, while others would start questioning their own mental health. In the novel, Craig’s best friend, Aaron, visits him after they had an argument over the phone, and tells him ‘I think I might have some of that depression stuff, too’, even though he probably doesn’t. It’s a little thing, but it made me feel that there were stupid people everywhere, even in books. Craig tells Aaron that, if he feels that way, he should see a professional. It’s the polite reply to a misguided statement.
One thing I still hear a lot is that suicide victims are selfish, because their passing causes pain to those who love them. While the pain caused is very real, I don’t think it’s an okay thing to say to someone who is suicidal, because it’s plain guilt-tripping. It doesn’t help. When Craig is at his lowest point, he thinks this:
‘It’s going to be tough on my parents […] They’ll blame themselves. It’ll be the most important event in their lives, the thing that gets whispered by other parents at parties when their backs are turned […] But you know what, it’s time for me to stop putting other people’s emotions ahead of my own.’
Craig knows his death would hurt people, but he’s reached a point where he thinks he can’t handle any more pain than he already has. This is his last resort, as it is for many others. I think this is an important message to convey, because too often, people who haven’t had those feelings automatically start shaming instead of helping. This novel has the potential to help those people understand.
As I mentioned earlier, Craig has a lot of pre-conceived ideas and unhealthy viewpoints of things. One of them is about Anchors – before exploring his creativity, he decides that other patients and Noelle, his love interest, can be his Anchors. It’s almost like he wants to base his happiness on other people, like they can ‘save him’. I think we’ve all seen this a lot, the idea that friends or lovers can pull us out of the dark places we’re stuck in. Teenage me sure had. But the reality is that – while loved ones can help – we need to build our lives around ourselves, not around others. Craig’s psychologist, Dr Minerva, puts that across very well.
Ned Vizzini committed suicide in 2013, but in his work, he left a trail of hope. The novel ends on a positive note. Craig thinks he’s had the Shift – the pivotal moment that leads to recovery – and he leaves Six North with a little more spirit than he had when he came in. Maybe it isn’t much to others, but reading this at the time, I thought that if Craig could get through it, then maybe I could to. And I did.
by Melissa Saryazdi