Doll Hospital, an art and literature journal on mental health, creates dialogue across a diverse community
By Julie Kliegman
Julie is the weekend editor for TheWeek.com and a freelance journalist based in New York. She’s written for publications including BuzzFeed, Vox, Mental Floss, Paste, the Tampa Bay Times and PolitiFact. Follow her @jmkliegman.
Bethany Rose Lamont never expected the zine she dreamed up in 2014 to gain thousands of subscribers. When she first thought of starting Doll Hospital, a bi-annual art and literature journal geared toward mental health, she was unemployed, suicidal and struggling to find the right outlet to express her feelings.
“Initially I thought this would be some kind of tiny, one-off thing me and a few friends would put together over the summer, like a total cut-and-paste job,” Lamont, a 24-year-old from Bristol, England, told ivoh in an email. “But as more people reached out to me and publications began covering us, I realized that this was a space that needed to be filled, that people needed somewhere specifically to share their work and everyday struggles with mental illness without the pressure of ‘proving’ themselves to anyone.”
In Doll Hospital, which is made by and geared toward people experiencing mental health challenges firsthand, there’s plenty of space for expressing a range of experiences. The zine accepts nonfiction submissions, but also fiction, poetry, photography and illustrations.
Mental health coverage certainly isn’t hard to come by, but mainstream journalism, Lamont argues, tends to focus on neat, upbeat success stories without giving a voice to people struggling with ongoing challenges. Doll Hospital pushes past that in a way that allows people to reclaim ownership of their own messy narratives.
“Mental illness is not a before-and-after, and to foster these beliefs places unrealistic pressure and guilt on mentally ill people that if they don’t wake up overnight and are miraculously ‘cured,’ then there’s something wrong with them,” Lamont said.
Writers don’t always feel safe entrusting their most personal stories to editors and readers who might not get where they’re coming from. Lamont said she rarely writes for outlets other than Doll Hospital because she dislikes the power imbalance she feels between editors at big publications who solicit personal essays for shock factor and the comparatively vulnerable freelancers who offer up painful stories for page views.
“Speaking to an editor at a different sort of publication will naturally feel different,” said Esmé Wang, a Doll Hospital contributor who often writes about her schizoaffective disorder. “I don’t know what their situation is, they haven’t quote-unquote come out to me. It’s a different experience communication-wise to talk to and work with people who you know are kind of in the same boat.”
Two issues in, Doll Hospital’s reach is modest, but growing. Lamont is soliciting funding in the hopes of being able to pay all contributors going forward. The Kickstarted product is accessible online, with only a suggested donation for readers.
Some of the logistics of starting and sustaining a zine have been tough to work out, but for Lamont — who juggles her volunteer Doll Hospital work with her documentary project and her Ph.D. work on survivordom in digital spaces — the learn-as-you-go struggle has been worth it to get stories out there.
“What conversations are being had on Facebook Messenger at 3 a.m., or waiting for the night bus?” Lamont said. “Who else needs to hear these stories? If you get that in place, the practical struggles can be dealt with.”
In moving that 3 a.m. discourse to a slightly more formal space, Lamont is careful to put the focus on highlighting a wide range of experiences. Doll Hospital specifically calls for the inclusion of different perspectives, listing race, class, gender identity, sexuality, colonialism, chronic illness and disability as issues that can shape people’s experiences with mental illness.
“What interested me about the idea of Doll Hospital was to have a home for writing and art that was created for people along the entire spectrum of what it is like to live with and be diagnosed with mental illness, from people who had just been diagnosed to people who maybe don’t have a diagnosis to maybe people who had been living with mental illness for a long time,” Wang said. “I really liked that diversity of contributors that she was envisioning.”
Wang’s essay in Issue 1 on why she’s chosen not to raise kids speaks to Doll Hospital’s commitment to going beyond traditional mental health narratives. In response to people pressing her about her decision, Wang wrote:
“What I want to say is, I have schizoaffective disorder. I was psychotic for half of 2013, and it’s September, so I have a good few only months left to get sick again. I don’t want to put a child through having me as a mother. Good-bye.”
It’s clear reminders like this one — that mental illness goes far beyond depression and anxiety, two of the most common and least stigmatized conditions — that make Doll Hospital a unique community. Lamont solicits work from the Tavi Gevinsons and Gemma Corrells of the publishing world, but she said her focus is always going to be on amplifying emerging voices with new stories to tell.
“I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they need a master’s in publishing and a blue tick on their Twitter profile to be able to speak with authority on their own experience,” Lamont said.