Novel Approaches to the Mental Health Message

Professor Anne Buist is an honorary in the Department of Psychiatry. She has recently published Two Steps Onward and shares the story behind her latest work.

There is a long tradition of doctors turning their hand to fiction; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Physician and amongst contemporary Australian writers we have Peter Goldsworthy, Melanie Cheng, and Nick Earls. Studying medicine gives us more than a qualification; it shows we can learn and persevere, and gives us respect for the importance of both. A novel is a marathon, not a sprint, and so is the writing journey.

I use my experience as a psychiatrist in both characters and story; Natalie King the protagonist in Medea’s Curse, Dangerous to Know and This I Would Kill For is a forensic psychiatrist who lives in an inner suburb of Melbourne, as I do. Her stories around perinatal psychiatry are from my world. She also lives with bipolar disorder—which many years in clinical practice has helped me understand. The Long Shadow, my 2020 book about a missing baby is set around mothers in a perinatal group like those I used to run. The books are written to be entertaining, but with a subtext of destigmatising mental illness. And fiction reaches places academic papers won’t ever penetrate.

I’ve also used my experience as a doctor in the two novels I co-wrote with my husband, Graeme Simsion, set on walks…very long walks. These, incidentally, are excellent ways to stay fit as you age, prepare you for COVID (we have always been allowed out to walk!), practice mindfulness, and appreciating the benefits of de-cluttering. The first, Two Steps Forward, set on a 2038 km Camino walk from Cluny in central France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, is about mid-life reinvention, but also about grief. While I used personal experience, the patients I had managed with grief, and the theoretical framework I used in that work, added to the richness of character as Zoe screams at the storm and the God she doesn’t believe in.

In Two Steps Onward, along the Chemin d’Assise and Via Francigena (1600km from Cluny to Rome, Italy…over the Alps) I had to brush the cobwebs from my MBBS—and recent experience with a friend—because one of the central characters has multiple sclerosis. This is a book about the importance of friendship, as well as romance, as we age.

We got back from the French-Italian walk on 4 March last year, as COVID descended from Lombardy and were met at Dubai by workers in Hazmat outfits (the Romans, needless to say hadn’t been worried). Writing the book was like reliving the walk when in reality we couldn’t walk more than five kilometres…reading it can offer a bit of lockdown travel escapism and something to dream and plan.