Open Minds Quarterly, whose subtitle is “The poetry and literature of mental health recovery,” is a welcome contribution to the growing body of discourse by and about “consumer/survivors of mental health services.” OMQ is a project of the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA) based in Ontario, Canada, whose purpose is to “eliminate stigma” by informing “mental health professionals, fellow consumer/survivors, and their family and friends—as well as society at large—of the strength, intelligence, and creativity” of its authors. A small, glossy, 8 1/2 X 11 journal, OMQ is a showcase for persons who have stories to share about mental illness; it’s not a literary feast. But it’s worth reading, and submitting to, especially if your concerns coincide with NISA’s.
Eighteen poems, one work of fiction, two essays, and a book review constitute this issue of the publication. The book review is heavily personal—well, everything in the issue is, appropriately enough. Katherine Tapley-Milton, a much-published writer who has suffered from schizoaffective disorder since she was fourteen, describes the lengthy questionnaire that makes up the bulk of Len Boller’s book Mental Recovery by Recognition Rationalization. She admits that “it would take a very determined person a lot of time to fill out the questions, but at the end the person would know themselves and their mental illness inside out.”
Still, she concludes that since her voices “tell [her] to self-harm,” Boller’s self-talk/journaling therapy is “like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop.” Mental illness comes in so many forms, as this magazine makes clear, that no one therapy can be relied upon to heal, even the ones for which it was specifically developed. Still, Tapley-Milton’s bio serves to assure that she has lived productively and well. Boller’s therapy may not work for her, but something certainly has.
This is the overriding message of the magazine. The one piece of fiction (“The Pit,” by David O’Neal) sounds like a verifiable case study of a chronic depressive, describing his recurrent trips to “the Arbor Hospital, a short-term crisis center for the mentally ill,” and the cycle of illness and recovery, concluding that “hospitalization was a ritual that would, in the end, keep him alive . . .He knew there was hope.”
Similarly, the two essays in the issue describe “Anxiety” (by Orville Lloyd Douglas) and “Three Accounts” (by Brett Batten). The man who succumbed to anxiety disorder finishes his essay by declaring that “Being proactive in improving my mental health is my responsibility and I now understand this.” “Three Accounts” (probably the most literary of the prose pieces here) describes the symbolic and emotional effects of keys, labels, and plants, asserting (validly enough) that “Who and what I am as a human at this moment is in part due to my experiences.” The author’s bio says that he has written a book about his involvement with Corrections Canada and the Forensic System in Ontario, and that he “evocatively references this material in his public speaking.” Again, the message is clear: “As more and more people bravely step forward with their illnesses, their success stories can only help to alleviate the stigma associated with mental illness.”
The poems corroborate these good tidings. Though some of them are cries in the dark (see Nathan B. Spencer’s “Your Trumpet Hurts,” where he insists, “You place a hurtful twist / in my top story marble / I feel so vulnerable now . . . // You still trumpet / and the twists still redefine / my mental annotation . . .”), many other poems end with triumphant affirmations of strength, such as “A Bleeding Heart” by Gail Kroll “It’s easier now than it was / now I’ve decided to see it clearly.” Rania S. Watts’s “Metamorphosis” also ends this way (“I cannot be manipulated now: / I am clean, fed and embraced—”) as does Ardith Powell’s “Becoming Free” (“Reality will come to you. / Hope will prevail.”)
Largely prosey—general descriptions of the atmosphere that mental illness casts over a life—these are still powerful expressions of the “intelligence and creativity” of their authors. The bios are inspiring. The magazine’s very existence should comfort and console anyone grappling with mental illness—their own or that of their loved ones. This small quarterly deserves to be read.