Each year, Shrink Tank puts the spotlight on one well-known person who has used his or her platform to educate people about mental illness, encourage others to find good treatment, or destigmatize. We call this honor our “Champion of Mental Health.” This year, our winner, John Green, author of bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and the new Turtles All The Way Down, has down all three.
He has used his massive YouTube platform and interviews to talk about his own struggles with OCD. He consistently promotes seeking treatment, coupled with a realistic view of what it takes to manage long-term chronic mental health problems. Equally important, he is frequently pushing back on both a tendency to stigmatize mental illness and attempts to romanticize it. John’s struggle with mental illness began before adulthood and has been with him for decades.
In high school, he said much of what he was experiencing internally that was invisible to everyone else contributed to a sense of loneliness and isolation.
He said part of the difficulty with a mental illness is that it isn’t observable to others and it is hard to fully communicate what it is. On his YouTube video, he shares, “I might say it feels like there’s a void inside of me or like my insides are twisted or like my brain is on fire. I can say what it’s like more than I can say what it is.”
For John, his OCD starts with intrusive thoughts that seem to come from outside of him and then, he says, they “sort of hijack my consciousness.” He says these obsessive thoughts happen “all the time” and they “can take over for days or weeks or months.”
During these times, the thoughts can be all-consuming and feel as if they have taken him over entirely. He adds, “This is exhausting, of course, but it’s also kind of terrifying,” almost like “a premise for a horror movie.”
His goal is not only to reduce the stigma associated with mental health struggles but also not ensure mental illness is not portrayed in ways that ring false or miss how great the impact is on people who struggle with it.
“Mental illness is highly stigmatized in our culture, but it is also sometimes romanticized,” he explained.
He gives examples of TV shows where, in order to crack a case, a mentally ill person must go off their meds or OCD detectives whose obsessiveness allows them to solve a crime. He said that might be true of other people’s experiences, but not true to his own personal journey. “I don’t feel like my mental illness has any superhero side effects.”
His goal with Turtles All The Way Down was to give some expression to what it’s truly like to live inside of “thought spirals.” His protagonist, Aza Holmes, is a 16-year-old girl who is on the bridge between childhood and adulthood who deals with all the normal issues that come with that time of life, yet she also struggles with obsessive worries that can be crippling. Green brings the reader into Aza’s internal experience in a depiction of OCD as good as any in the history of literature.
He told Time, “One of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”
Increasingly, he has shared his own story as a way of being helpful to others and to model the need to move the issues into the light. Earlier this year, he told the New York Times, “I want to talk about it and not feel any embarrassment or shame because I think it’s important for people to hear from adults who have good, fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.”
For those struggling with their own mental health, he says in one YouTube video viewed by over half a million people, “Please, please seek help.” He said he knows finding effective treatment is tough, but “there is hope, even if in your brain there isn’t…
“The vast majority of mental illness is treatable and lots of people with chronic mental health problems have fulfilling and vibrant lives.”
For his openness about his own struggles, his passion for using his platform to educate and destigmatize, and for giving us an inside view of the experience of OCD in his outstanding new book, Turtles All The Way Down, we are proud to award the 2017 Champion of Mental Health Award to John Green.