Reading Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho was my first brush with literature that tackles the intricacies of mental health. I found its premise interesting. Despite having virtually everything a woman her age could ask for, the titular character decided to end her life in a rented room in a convent. But why? By leafing through the book to look for answers to this question, I unknowingly plunged into the complexities of situations that people with mental health battles are often subjected to.
What Coelho felt compelled to put in writing was likely his own experience in a mental institution. Because of his introversion and desire to become a writer—a career path that was non-traditional for his time—the Brazilian author’s family believed he was plagued by insanity and needed to be cured.
Here in the Philippines, the situation is still mostly just as rife with prejudice, misconception, and misinformation. Anyone who expresses the slightest concern for his or her emotional wellness or mental hygiene is dismissed as overreacting. Feeling crippled by anxiety? You risk being seen as weak and unable to cope with life’s realities. Plagued by depression? Just think happy thoughts and put on a positive attitude to battle those episodes of being “under the weather.” Had a history of compulsive tendencies and behaviors? You’re an easy target for branding as a misfit.
For some people, however, it’s never as black and white as that. Mental health never is. And, most important of all, the struggle is real.
This very predicament was the focus of The Book Stop Dialogue entitled “How Literature Affects Mental Health” held last May 4, seen through the lens of what we read, what we watch and how we communicate today. Led by a panel of speakers who have been witnesses and survivors of various mental health battles, the discussion praised the growing awareness among today’s generation (thanks to popular albeit controversial avenues like the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and the recently approved Mental Health Bill), but also criticized how relationships today lack personal connection and empathy ironically due to social media.
Building perspectives through reading
With today’s wealth of literature on mental health, I’ve been particularly interested in diving deeper into the role of reading for those who struggle with mental health problems or emotional wellness. Reading is a hobby or welcome distraction for most people, but for those seeking to calm their overthinking minds, curb their anxieties or understand their lingering conditions, it’s also an accessible form of therapy. Sitting down with visual and performance artist Paolo Dumlao after his talk during the Book Stop discussion gave me a real-life perspective into this idea.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fond of books. Aside from those recommended by the school, I also liked reading about things I’m interested in, like philosophy, arts, psychology and technology,” Paolo said. “For me, it’s both to de-stress and for me to lever things on a different perspective. When it comes to my mental health, I can say that I can lever things out in an unbiased perspective through reading.”
Paolo, who recently survived his second suicide attempt, found solace within the pages of “Aphorisms on Love and Hate” by Friedrich Nietzsche after his time in the rehab. The German philosopher’s writing joined the growing list of non-fiction that help shape his philosophies in life, alongside the selection of fiction that nourish him as a creative.
To read is to live
For another Book Stop discussion panelist, seasoned clinical psychologist and celebrated writer Vim Nadera, reading is a way of life for those who deeply enjoy it.
“I would like to liken reading to eating. Once we ingest a book, it gives us energy. It also allows us to grow. Especially if you are a bookworm, you don’t just read to keep you busy or kill time. You read to live,” he said.
Because mental health issues often impair everyday life, Vim sees self-help books as a starting point to freeing ourselves from the shackles of these debilitating psychological conditions.
“More or less, the contact is direct compared to, say, a book of poetry. Plus, reading those can assist us develop our self-image or self-respect. Then, we can go to inspirational ones. This way, the transition can be smooth—from physical to emotional or, to some extent, mental.”
Healing through writing
If reading aids in architecting philosophies, ideologies and perspectives that give us control over our mental and emotional health, wordsmithery—particularly, writing poetry—held healing powers for Vim Nadera. By harnessing the power of words and self-expression through a poetry therapy program, he was able to help cancer patients and survivors, victims of abuse, grieving individuals and others in vulnerable situations recognize their feelings and verbalize their thoughts in the forms of poems.
“In my experience in promoting poetry therapy, I usually ask the participants to bring their favorite poems on Day 2. More often than not, most of them would bring the most therapeutic of all poems. They would always read or recite a prayer.
“Indeed, there is a space between the physical and the spiritual. And the Poet bridges it,” he also writes in one of his essays on poetry therapy.
What I see these discussions are doing is reinforcing the power of literature—one that is still not fully understood by many of us despite its evident effects on our well-being, whether or not we’re emotionally or psychologically distraught. Perhaps, one way we can grasp its impact in our lives is by paying attention to our own reactions with every book we pick up and what changes in our psyche with every turn of a page. ☁