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Mark Brazaitis on Mental Illness and Healing

In The Incurables, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, Mark Brazaitis evokes with sympathy, insight, and humor the lives of characters in a small Ohio town. The ten short stories in this collection limn the mental landscape of people facing conditions they believe are insolvable, from the oppressive horrors of mental illness to the beguiling and baffling complexities of romantic and familial love. Mark wrote the following piece for the Notre Dame Press blog.

The Incurables was born out of a painful depressive episode I experienced beginning in the summer of 2003 and ending in January of 2004. My treatment, ultimately successful, included a three-month hospitalization and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). Half a decade later, I decided to write about this dark and disturbing time in my life. 

Initially, I thought I would write a memoir similar to William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. But the few pages I managed felt at once too clinical and too raw. Furthermore, the project struck me as too self-involved. I wanted to include other voices in my work—voices like those of the troubled and brave women and men I’d met during my sojourn into sorrow. I turned to the short story.

After The Incurables won the Richard Sullivan Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press, I didn’t anticipate speaking about my book and what had inspired it to any audience larger than the modest (but cherished!) crowds who usually attended my readings. (I’d published four books before The Incurables.) But then I was invited to be a guest on the Diane Rehm Show, which reached 2.4 million listeners. Rehm’s past guests included Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Julie Andrews, and Toni Morrison.

I was thrilled. And very nervous.

Mental illness isn’t something we hear much about—at least not in proportion to how prevalent it is. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2020, there were 14.2 million adults—5.6 percent of the U.S. adult population—who suffered from a severe mental illness, defined as an illness that impairs the sufferer’s ability to participate in one or more major life activities, such as holding down a job. The number of us who suffer from a mental illness is on the rise. The increase is especially high among young people. From 2009 to 2019, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of high school students who experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness jumped 40 percent; the number who reported having made a suicide plan within the past year increased 44 percent.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, an awful lot of us keep quiet about our struggles. American culture encourages this silence by how it mischaracterizes and demeans people with mental illnesses. The fact that the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, released in 1975, remains a defining depiction of mental-health treatment and mental illness in general speaks to our lingering ignorance. 

In some cases, medical professionals are as guilty as the public in encouraging mental illness to remain a taboo subject. In the psychiatric hospital where I was treated, I was issued an i.d. with only my first name on it. This, I was told, would assure my confidentiality. But why did I need any more confidentiality than someone who’d been injured in a car crash? Was I supposed to be ashamed of my suffering? 

To accommodate society’s prejudices is to reinforce them. Silence can be a form of accommodation. Even so, I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to reveal to two million listeners. I would have been naïve not to expect Diane Rehm to ask me personal and probing questions. Yet to have offered oblique responses such as “Several of my characters’ stories are akin to my own” would, I knew, have been to miss a valuable opportunity to be honest with listeners about my frightening, confusing, and excruciating experience with depression and thereby fail to do my small part to destigmatize what so many of us endure.

Thanks to my appearance on the Diane Rehm Show, which is available in a podcast, and especially thanks to The Incurables, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, I am often asked to speak about mental illness and subjects related to it, most recently at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Philadelphia last spring. 

The most important point I make is obvious but too often ignored: If you are suffering from a severe mental illness, seek help. None of us is incurable.

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