A review of Admissions: Voices within Mental Health edited by David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury, Mohammad Award

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Voices within Mental Health
Edited by By: David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury, Mohammad Award
Upswell Publishing
Paperback, 352 pages, ISBN: 9780645248098, $29.95aud

It’s one thing to encourage and promote diversity in writing, but another to directly enable it through programs and support mechanisms.  Red Room is an organisation that does the latter, running workshops designed to support and encourage a very diverse range of writers, including a series just for people who have lived experience of mental health issues. The MAD Poetry workshops were free, flexible, supportive, non-judgemental, and run by experienced writers who also had lived experience of mental health issues. Half of the poems in the Admissions anthology are a result of these workshops and a call-out for 30 emerging voices which also appear in the anthology. The result of these programs benefits everyone. We are all enriched by a more inclusive society that allows for engagement with all aspects of what it means to be a human, both within and without the sphere of lived mental illness, though I suspect it would be difficult to find someone who has not been deeply touched by mental illness in some way – either directly or through a loved one, family member, or colleague. 

Admissions not only contains creative responses from a variety of perspectives (105 to be exact) focused around the topic of mental health, but also a variety of genres, genders, ethnicities and spiritualities, approaches, emotions, and levels of well-being. I can’t recall coming across a similarly broad collection of work before, with such an open framework that resists dogma, structure, delineation in favour of what David Stavanger calls in his editorial for the book, “radical empathy, inclusivity and generosity”. The work feels organic and right, created through a collection that encompasses poetry, essay, visual images, and stories, but also life experiences that extend both deep inside the hurting mind, and outward to a collective awareness that nothing we experience is entirely without precedent, nor are we ever completely alone.

The writers are similarly diverse, ranging from the 30 wonderful emerging voices that Red Room gathered, to the well-known, such as Fiona Wright, whose essay “No crazy person is mad enough” explores prosopagnosia (faceblindness) against a backdrop of a first date. Anna Spargo-Ryan engages with the anxiety and transitions between Covid-19 and the opening of lockdown. Sara M. Saleh tackles bulimia and self-harm in “Elegy for a (Hated) Body, and Michael Farrell’s works through intrusive thoughts in “Train Therapy”:

These feelings – were only pretexts. If I had thought of fish instead, fish in blue, green, brown water, well, the release of the sympathy ducts would be on. I would be wishing the fields could be flooded. Probably I should have trained in and out for days, until I dried up.

This is a tiny sampling of the many authors included in this collection. Some of the pieces are relatively simple, relying on sound and repetition to create meaning, such as Helena Fox’s sibilant dissociations:

is to apparate
is to appear
is to arrive (“dissociate is to”)

Or Eunice Andrada’s self-effacing trauma:

When I watch robins plummet from the sky, it’s just me.
A poet asks, what feminine part of yourself did you split
Off clean so you wouldn’t be catcalled? (Eunice Andrada’s  “Sexual Assault Report Questionnaire: Describe your hair.”)

Others are more semantically complex, such as Quinn Eades’ metapoetic “these notes they slip”: 

We are mad to write because writing tears us a part and we are tired of breaking of breaking our Seles open on the cliff face of falling of hoping the up draft  finds us this time again time again the down up the push of a great wind a cradle a supple rush all of a sudden knowing sky we are mad we are faking mad to write we carry this book for so long that it is become 

un breakable

Like the best anthologies, Admissions is a fluid collection where the different genres, explorations and styles of creativity inform one another, creating a montage that is inherently collective. The ordering of the book is alphabetically reversed, using author’s last name from Z to A rather than the other way around, mirroring Alice Blayney’s poem “The Z-A of Crazy”. It’s part of the subtle humour woven throughout the book, but also reflects an exuberance and freedom that is coupled with the pain, leaving the reader with a sense of hope and even, at times joy that isn’t predicated on ‘getting better’ but rather on empathy and connection. The ‘radical empathy’ that Stavinger talks about in his forward is present throughout the book, as the different forms of pain and struggle sit together in solidarity like a supportive scaffold so that in the reading the separation between the different experiences becomes diminished and there is a sense that every perspective fits and is important.

One thing that become clear is that the structures that surround mental health – the facilities, the medical practice, the standards and the definitions are not supportive enough nor do they encompass the rich and diffuse totality of what it means to perceive the world through the lens of these challenges. It is fitting that the book ends with Claire Albrecht’s “annexiety”, a poem enlivened, as so many of the works in the collection are, by a very topical gallows humour as it evokes dreams of Putin into a pathology of anxiety:

Anxiety is the millennial condition, says a click-bait article I 
probably read somewhere, as for my own tangles, well,
there are some parties you just shouldn’t go to.
I’m one gnarled shoot of a gnarly nervous system,

The three Admissions editors, David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowhury, and Mohammad Awad, do a terrific job of what must have been a difficult task, ensuring a diversity of voices and experiences, presented with such care and delicacy that the book takes on a transformative quality – words conveying a truth that is both personal and universal. Admissions makes for a powerful reading experience that encourages a call to advocacy, the need for better governmental support mechanisms, and a more accepting and supportive world for all kinds of mental health challenges, while simultaneously celebrating the multitude of experiences that makes us uniquely ourselves, with all of our inherent complexity.