May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so now is the perfect time to encourage discussions about the topic. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma against mental health, hindering some people’s willingness to speak up. It can also keep people from trying to learn.
Brooklyn-based children’s author-illustrator Booki Vivat initially worried she didn’t know enough about mental health to confidently attend a session of “Mental Health First Aid,” but decided to go along with friends anyway. The training is provided in New York City through the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC, but also offered around the world through partnerships with communities and governments.
In her case, the activities and conversations she had there helped Vivat realize how important empathy is when supporting people in crisis. While facts and data are helpful, the best support comes with care and attention. Overall, the training is not just an info session; instead, instructing attendees on ways that they can best assist people. For Vivat, one major benefit was that it helped her realize she lacked practical knowledge about how to respond to mental health issues.
Inspired by the experience, Vivat wanted to share how the training had fueled her to delve into her own relationship with mental health. She doodled about the session and, after sharing it on social media, was contacted by ThriveNYC. The organization asked if she would create an illustrated testimonial; she agreed, already planning to process what she’d learned through a comic.
The Q&A style comic—shared at the end of this post—takes readers through Vivat’s initial nervousness to her realization that everyone is attending in order to learn together. Vivat uses the format to provide mental health facts, points out misconceptions, remind everyone that kindness and empathy is key.
It’s fitting that Vivat would be involved with mental health training because she is the author and illustrator of the series Frazzled, which follows a nervous middle grader named Abbie Wu. The stories are clever and funny, and Abbie’s worries will be relatable to those who have dealt with anxiety from a young age. I asked Vivat what inspired her to center a series around a young character coping with anxiety and she explained that she “just wanted to tell an honest story about the kind of kid…who ha[s] a lot of feelings, a lot of fears, and no idea what to do with them.”
Kids struggle to vocalize their experiences, especially with often-avoided subjects like anxiety and sadness. If you want to spend Mental Health Awareness Month helping a child begin to understand what they are feeling, there is a sub-genre of children’s books that focus on stress and depression. Also, Vivat recommended titles for a range of ages: “I especially love Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes and Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna, two picture books that explore really big, challenging emotions. When it comes to middle grade, Tae Keller’s The Science of Breakable Things takes a beautifully empathetic look at how mental illness can impact the people around us and Sally J. Pla’s Stanley Will Probably Be Fine captures anxiety in such a heartfelt, honest way. Finally, for teens…Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman—it’s powerful and brilliant and made me look at mental health in a totally new way.”
Mental Health First Aid courses are available for both adults and teens, and could be especially beneficial right now. It’s likely that we all know people whose mental health is worse than usual due to COVID-19. For added support during this time, mental health first aid courses will soon be available virtually. Regardless of if you sign up for the course (you’ll get a shiny certificate) or you just read books about people coping with mental health issues, take it from Vivat and remember that knowledge mixed with empathy is the key to properly supporting people.