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The Use Of Cartoon Books In Explaining Mental Health Problems For Children.

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

We are all visual beings, often noticing through our eyes before other senses. The use of cartoons or images in a book will often grab the attention of an individual, especially a child and will explain concepts much more clearly and vividly than a paragraph of words. When opening a book, one is immediately drawn to the picture or cartoon before one starts to read the paragraph or page associated with the image.

Delphis Books originated from a long partnership between Neil Phillips and me. I am a child psychiatrist and wrote, initially what I thought was an information pamphlet on OCD for children and showed it to my good friend Neil when we were travelling by plane to do work in rural NSW. When I showed Neil the text, he put it away in his bag and asked me to leave it with him. From that encounter Shrink-Rap Press and our first book the Secret Problem originated. More recently Delphis Books was formed to cater for the child and adolescent market and Finger Lime Books for adults.

I still remember the impact and effectiveness of that book in helping young people with OCD far surpassed the usefulness of much of my other more academic work. The Secret Problem was useful immediately in clinical work by sharing information to help educate a population of young people with OCD about the nature of their problem and the ways to deal with it. The joy that I experienced when children would say “How do you know what's going on in my head Dr Wever?” I would answer that they were not alone in having this problem and that I had talked to many other children who had very similar problems. The fact that the book showed to them I understood that other people had similar problems and that there were strategies and treatments that worked, gave them optimism and hope and engaged them well in the therapeutic relationship.

This book was popular and in fact won an award when it was first published. It is still relevant and useful in educating young people about their problem. It is an important part of early management of OCD to explain the condition in a way that a child will understand the reasons why certain treatments are used. The magic of cartoons is that it simplifies the subject and presents it in a way that it is more understandable, often humorous and easier to relate to. It helps if some humour can be included in education, but one must be careful not to be seen as making light of their often serious difficulties. One also needs to be aware of the concrete nature of younger children's thinking. OCD is represented in the Secret Problem by an octopus with each of its tentacles representing a symptom of OCD. This mean octopus tries to cause the young person to do the many compulsions and have the many obsessions of OCD. Yet one child looked at me, somewhat aghast and asked me whether he really had an octopus in his brain! I then had to explain the octopus was just a representation of the OCD and it was not an actual octopus that inhabited his brain. There are many times in a session where I am talking to parents and the child and the child gets distracted by the book and becomes engrossed in reading and looking at the cartoons explaining the condition. This is always a good sign.

After The Secret Problem other books were produced by Neil and me. The other books that have been written include the School Wobblies, Full of Beans and How to Bust the Worry Warts have all followed a similar theme of breaking down and explaining the problems of school refusal, ADHD and generalised anxiety disorder respectively in a manner that a young person would understand.

I likened our collaboration as two psychiatrists playing together and talking about ideas and how my words and Neil’s illustrations would come together to form a book. The shift in focus to work that was more creative, rather than remain in reductionist medical thinking was certainly an extremely enjoyable experience. I rediscovered the joy of being creative in writing these cartoon books. My observation in using these books in my professional life is that children enjoy reading the books and identify with the content.

Now I make sure I dedicate time to nurture my creativity. Writing, which was a skill I enjoyed when younger had faded over the years, but has been rekindled. Writing these books for children is now becoming a passion and pleasure and I think writing them towards the end of my professional career is good timing, as accumulated clinical experience does translate more easily to what is required to convey the information as an “old storyteller”. The books are much like my descriptions and explanations to a child in a clinical session, but only with the aid of some extremely good illustrations which both educate and entertain the young person.

The test of whether a book is useful is the response of the young person that reads them. Most children that I give or lend the books to in my practise quickly identify with some of the core issues that are presented. When I ask them whether the book is about them, they will open to specific pages to illustrate what they identify with. It is also interesting that if you are recognised as an author of a book by your patient, your credibility rises quite dramatically! I have my books mounted on my wall and when the children get bored in the session and explore the room, once they feel comfortable, they spot my name at the bottom of the title page of the books and all of a sudden they will say something like, “ wow you wrote those books” and immediately my credibility appears to have raised a notch or two.

My aim over the next however many years I am working and capable would be to finish a series of books covering most of the conditions that a young person may have.

This is now being pursued with dedicated time to writing and a dedicated child mental health publishing company called Delphis Books.

Nearing completion is a book explaining autism called Autism and Me. The aim of this book will be to explain in a straightforward way some of the experiences a young person with autism may experience. I hope that when it is released it will be as useful for young people as our previous books.

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