Inspiration Behind Writing

Claire:  I really enjoyed reading your mental health book, From Survive to Thrive: Living Your Best Life With Mental Illness and I found your writing, explanations, and personal stories very compelling. What inspired you to write this book? 

Meg: Thanks! Over the years I’ve practiced psychiatry, I notice that new patients often ask what my “theoretical” orientation is (i.e., do I take a cognitive behavioral approach?, am I a Freudian?, etc). I always try to explain succinctly the Perspectives of Psychiatry approach to patient care in which I was trained at Hopkins, but I often thought that it would help to have a book that I could give these patients and families to help them understand this approach.

Of course, I thought that a book that demystifies and de-stigmatizes psychiatry could also be helpful for everyone – whether they were in treatment with me or someone else or not in treatment at all. In addition, I wanted to give people hope that one can thrive in life despite (and sometimes because of) a psychiatric illness — so as I was writing the project evolved into a book not only about psychiatric problems but also about human flourishing.

Writing a Mental Health Book

Claire: In your opinion what distinguishes From Survive to Thrive from other mental health books? 

Meg: This is the only book written for people with psychiatric problems and their family members that views these problems from the four Perspectives of Psychiatry. It is also the only book that puts these problems in the broader context of human flourishing, using the model developed by Tyler VanderWeele at Harvard. These are both rather complex ways of thinking about mental life — when it works well and when it goes awry — and the good life, respectively, but both are extremely relevant to the human experience and I thought important to share with the general public. 

Including a Foreword

Claire: What is the importance of a foreword to a book? How do you think including a foreword  sets the tone of the novel?

Meg: A foreword needs to invite the reader into the book. It needs to be personal, engaging, and uplifting. It needs to be welcoming. I was delighted that Cal Ripken, Jr. embraced the challenge of writing the foreword to my book, as he has the kind of character and virtues that so many of us appreciate and aspire to. He’s a humble, generous, and compassionate person, in addition to being a tremendous athlete

Healing Through Writing

Claire: Your personal story has a powerful message of resilience and strength. Was it challenging to relive those difficult moments in your life by writing them down? Do you feel as though sharing more of your personal journey helps you connect more with your reader?

Greg Dohler Photography

Meg: When I’ve taught the Perspectives of Psychiatry to health professions trainees, I’ve always used the example of Ernest Hemingway to illustrate how anyone’s psychiatric problems can have their origin in one’s life story, personality, behaviors, and/or a brain disease, as Hemingway’s surely did. So, initially, I considered weaving his story throughout the book, but — given that I’m not an expert on Hemingway — but I do know my own story well, I thought it would make more sense to share my personal story. Plus, it would serve my overall aim in writing the book of de-stigmatizing psychiatric problems, and — as you mention — also allow a deeper connection between the reader and me. 

Writing the story down was difficult at times, but the idea that by sharing my story I would be turning something painful into something that could be helpful to others really helped me make meaning of what I’d experienced, which was healing.

Translating Medical Writing

Claire: Your book includes a lot of terminology and clinical language.  How do you break down advanced ideas and make language more accessible for your readers? 

Meg: I am very fortunate to have been able to work with John Hanc as a co-writer. He really helped me ‘translate’ ideas that I expressed sometimes in academic medical language into plain English. He also helped keep the book — despite its serious topic — filled with humor and hope. He would read my chapter drafts, and then we’d have a conversation about the chapter in which I talked to him as I would to a patient or a family member, which he’d use to revise the chapter. It was a wonderful process, which resulted in a book with a conversational tone that is accessible and fun to read and even more fun to listen to as an audio book!

Working with an Illustrator

Claire: From Survive to Thrive includes some lovely illustrations to help visually portray some of the concepts you discuss. What was it like working with your illustrator Natasha Chugh?

Meg: Natasha is multi-talented. She was an undergraduate, pre-med student at Johns Hopkins University, when we met and worked together; and I was delighted when she agreed to do the cover and other illustrations for the book. I use a lot of visuals when I teach these topics, and so had some notion of the ways we could convey the ideas in the book — particularly the four Perspectives and the four Pathways — visually, but these were just the starting point for Natasha. She is so creative and imaginative, and her often whimsical illustrations support the hopeful tone of this book about a serious topic.

Co-Writing a Book

Claire: You co-wrote this book with John Hanc who has written or co-written twenty-two books. What was your biggest takeaway from working with such an experienced author? 

Meg: I have so much gratitude to the JH Press for the opportunity to work with John Hanc. As someone who mainly writes scientific articles for academic audiences, I felt the book really needed a co-writer to ensure it would end up reaching its intended audience. I wanted it to be something that anyone would want to read, and would understand and enjoy reading. John is a terrific writer and collaborating with him on this project was a joy. 

Writing for Different Audiences

Claire: You’ve also co-written another book, Systematic Psychiatric Evaluations which focuses more on the clinical applications of the Perspectives of Psychiatry by Paul R McHugh, M.D., and Phillip Slavney M.D. How does writing for a different audience, patients instead of fellow clinicians, affect your writing style? 

Meg: Few academics are natural born writers and most don’t take advantage of developing their story-telling skills. Thus, academic writing has a style all its own, in which usually the author’s voice takes a back seat to a dispassionate (read: dry) presentation of research data and their analysis. All sense of a story is lost. My first book grew out of my teaching of the topic to medical trainees, including psychiatrists-in-training, and — like in this book — the content was brought to life through sharing de-identified patient stories. However — unlike this book — it uses primarily clinical language and doesn’t include my personal story at all.

Choosing a Publisher

Claire: You worked with Johns Hopkins Press to publish your mental health book, From Survive to Thrive. As a professor at Johns Hopkins University did you only submit your manuscript to your university’s press? Or did you consider other publishing methods? 

Meg: My first book was also published by the JH Press and I was contractually obligated to submit the manuscript first to the JH Press. If they passed on publishing it, only then could I submit elsewhere. I am on the Faculty Editorial Board for the Press and so may be a bit biased, but I liked having the editorial and marketing support that comes with a Press — their support of a co-writer and publicist, for example — and especially appreciated the book being part of the JH Press Health Book series.

About the Author

Greg Dohler Photography

Dr. Chisolm is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, with a secondary appointment in the department of Internal Medicine. Board-certified in general psychiatry and addiction medicine, she has 3 decades of clinical experience in these fields. Dr. Chisolm is the author of the award-winning book, From Survive to Thrive: Living Your Best Life with Mental Illness, a member of the Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence, and the Director of the Paul McHugh Program for Human Flourishing where she uses the arts and humanities to explore the ‘big questions’ — what it means to be human, to be a physician, and to lead a good life (for doctors and patients) — with medical learners.

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