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Why Potter is better than Prozac for teens with mental health issues

By Jane Graham

Published 15/04/2016

Comforting tales: Harry Potter author JK Rowling
Comforting tales: Harry Potter author JK Rowling

This is my last column for the Belfast Telegraph, so I'm going to make it an indulgent, happy one. I do have good cause for cheer; the announcement this week of a rare victory for sense and sensibility in a fiscally straitened institutional setting (not a headline we read often these days, as artists and libraries become casualties of Government department culture wars).

A Reading Well campaign in England, hopefully to be followed soon here, is to see doctors and counsellors prescribe specially selected novels to 13 to 18 year olds with mental health issues.

In other words, the powers that be have woken up to the healing power of art. Not in the usual airy-fairy, lip-service isn't Shakespeare wise, isn't To Kill a Mockingbird thought-provoking way, but in a real, quantifiable, practical sense.

Someone, somewhere (probably the Reading Agency charity) convinced authority figures - usually fixated on empirically provable results - that money could be saved and medics' time freed up if the strained system exploited one of its greatest and most plentiful resources; stories with enough empathy, compassion and emotional punch to convince the estimated 300,000 young people in the UK with anxiety disorders that they aren't alone, they aren't bad, or weird, and there is always the possibility of a better life just over the horizon.

I can't overstate what sweet music this is to my ears. Because I know that literature - from the profound, transformative literature of George Eliot, F Scott Fitzgerald and Dostoevsky to the heartfelt ebbs and flows of the best Young Adult fiction - can ease a troubled teenage mind.

Sometimes it does so by simply presenting a believable character, with all the flaws and complexities the reader might have felt was unique - and uniquely alienating - to themselves. Eliot's headstrong, misunderstood Maggie Tulliver fits this bill. As does JD Salinger's melancholy loner Holden Caulfield, and fretful, insecure Margaret in YA Queen Judy Blume's superlative Are You There God, it's Me Margaret (which Fight Club writer Chuck Palahniuk once told me was his favourite book when he was 16).

And there can't be many more effective ways of convincing higher functioning autistic kids they're not "problem" children, but just people with less-common personality traits, than introducing them to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (already on the Reading Well list).

In the most capable hands, fiction can also give its readers faith that they'll get through the bad stuff and find something brighter. It sounds vacuously Hallmark to say it, but it's true - a chink of light, a hint of hope, marks the conclusion of many of the greatest stories of all time.

Mournful, elegiac, agonisingly unfair, Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera ends on a consolatory note, with belief in love. Despite its long list of unfortunate events, the same goes for the Harry Potter series, which might also be of help to children suffering the loss of a loved one; don't underestimate how deeply Potter fans fall for Rowling's protagonists and how invaluable their continued company proves after the shock death of another beloved character.

If only there was more room to list all those writers who mark the details of the world with such grace, poetry and passion they simply make it nicer to live in (Heaney, Ferrante, Carver, Sebald). And those books which hug us with such tight-gripped big-bosomed assurance that going back to them time after time feels like going home (Austen, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro). And all the wits which make us laugh so hard we forget ourselves (Wodehouse, Waugh, Alan Bennett).

I'm a believer in cognitive therapy, but I hope in future when doctors prescribe anti-depressants for our anguished kids, they mean Potter, rather than Prozac.

Suffragette statue is not before time

Centuries of patriarchal democracy have  seen us advance, in terms of compassion, compromise and social mobility, about as far as, to quote Blackadder, an asthmatic ant with very heavy shopping.

The Houses of Parliament remain a male stronghold, symbolised by the many statues of powerful men in Parliament Square.

I applaud Caroline Criado-Perez’s petition for a bronze suffragette to join them. Putting an unbreakable, all-weather woman among the likes of Churchill, Gandhi and Disraeli will do more than scare the pigeons. It will mark the early-21st century as the time when smart, accomplished, capable women finally decided they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Hallelujah.

Thank you all and good night

So, as this columnist bows out, I’d like to list everyone I should thank.

Unfortunately, I only have 100 words left, so instead I’ll just say, to all the lovers and the haters (many who vented their spleen so eloquently in the comments section, all of whose suggestions I have cherished, especially the guy who had very specific ideas about how I might restyle my hair and try a different lipstick), thanks for stopping by this page for so many years.

Hey, I know this parting is harder on you than it is on me.

In the words of the great Truman Burbank: “Good morning. And if I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.”

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