Strategic Interventions in Mental Health Rhetoric. Lisa Melonçon and Cathryn Molloy, Eds. New York, NY: Routledge, 2022. 248 pages, $48.95 paperback, $44.05 e-book, $170 hardcover.

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Review by Josh Chase

Date posted: May 2024

Recommended Citation:

Chase, Josh. (2024) “Book review: Strategic Interventions in Mental Health Rhetoric” Rhetoric of Health & Medicine: Vol. 7: Iss. 4.

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Lisa Melonçon and Cathryn Molloy offer Strategic Interventions in Mental Health Rhetoric, an edited collection, to the growing body of scholarship in the fields of the rhetoric of health and medicine (RHM), mental health rhetoric (MHR), and mental health rhetoric research (MHRR). While the editors acknowledge that the pandemic brought mental health struggles to the forefront, they also point out the timelessness of the issue, noting that specific historical moments pose unique challenges for those who struggle with mental health. Strategic Inventions is a response not only to a particular historical moment but also to the gaps in and problems with how we deal with mental health publicly and in the various academic disciplines. Mental health, as Melonçon and Molloy put it, is “a messy object” (p. 2). Though “comprehensive assessment” may be an unreachable goal for mental health researchers, rhetoricians are uniquely positioned to suggest “real and specific change” about concerns related to communication’s role in mental health management (pp. 2-3). Seventeen different chapter authors discuss such interventions.

The first part of the book, “Methodological Interventions,” begins with a chapter by Melonçon and Lora Arduser, who examine how patients and their caregivers form relationships with other users of online health forums. They theorize “collective intimacy” to describe how these users cooperate to share information about mental health and to support each other as they navigate its challenges. The authors argue that further research into collective intimacy offers scholars and practitioners insight into “how patients and their families negotiate their illnesses” throughout their daily lives and in their interactions online (p. 29).

Next, Sean Kamperman explores methodological practices in MHRR and urges researchers to develop “inclusive tactics.” Researchers must be responsive to their human participants’ behaviors, and they often must make “ad hoc decisions” throughout the research process (p. 36). To do so, they develop “tactics,” or “habitual responses to familiar situations” (p. 36). Kamperman offers an iterative framework for developing, tracking, reflecting upon, and revising “inclusive tactics” or “methodological moves aimed at fostering greater inclusion in one’s research space” (p. 34).

The first part of the book concludes with a chapter from Lisa DeTora and Tomeka Robinson that challenges narratives that reduce “domestic violence” to “male violence against female sexual partners” (p. 51). Such narratives are often built upon faulty reporting that fails to consider how a variety of factors often influence victims’ willingness (and ability) to report domestic violence. In turn, DeTora and Robinson argue, these narratives render invisible victims who fall outside that heteronormative paradigm. The authors argue for an intersectional and culture-centered rhetorical approach to reporting and narrative building that accounts for different “points to consider,” including (but not limited to) immigration and marital status, citizenship, language use, religious affiliation, finances, personal networks and contacts, and insurance (p. 56).

The second section focuses on “Legal, Cultural, and Institutional Interventions” and begins with a chapter by Nora Augustine on the rhetoric of mental health support groups. In addition to offering textual analysis of support group literature and documentation, Augustine draws upon her own experiences as a support group facilitator. Support groups occupy a unique position because people who seek the help of support groups may not identify as “mental health consumers,” and the people who facilitate support groups are “rarely required to be mental health professionals” (p. 73). Yet, support groups can help participants to better understand their mental health struggles and connect them to important information and resources. Through rhetorical strategies that respond to the restraints and affordances of this unique relationship, support group facilitators and participants can communicate in ways that are “therapeutic” but “not therapy” (p. 83). For Augustine, this means that further research into support groups could offer MHRR scholars the opportunity to make “a tangible contribution” to mental health management (p. 84).

In the next chapter, Stephanie Kelley-Romano and Lori J. Joseph examine Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Despite its often controversial image in the public and among mental health researchers, AA is nevertheless “one of the oldest and most well-known approaches” for those who struggle with habitual alcohol use (p. 89). However, the narratives that drive the group’s central text (known among members as “the Big Book”) are “narrow and very much entrenched in whiteness, heteronormativity, and class status” (p. 100). Kelley-Romano and Joseph propose a new revision of the Big Book—one that is more “welcoming and familiar” for people struggling with alcohol dependence who have different backgrounds, life experiences, and positionalities (p. 100).

Next, Hua Wang urges rhetorical intervention into the “biased cultural discourse on postpartum depression” (PPD) in China (p. 106). Wang examines the case of a new mother in China who used crocheting as a way to connect with other mothers suffering from PPD. By combining the results of their crocheting hobby into a public installation, these mothers transformed their creations into material rhetorical artifacts of their “embodied experiences” and raised public awareness about PPD (p. 113).

In “Rerouting Stigma: Leading with Law in Mental Health Rhetoric Research,” Mark A. Hannah and Susie Salmon attempt to intervene in the mental health stigma surrounding the insanity plea. When a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict was returned in the criminal case surrounding the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Regan, public fears that defendants would leverage such pleas to escape accountability led to statutory changes and mental health stigma. As a result, people suffering from mental illnesses are often vulnerable to “unjust legal consequences” (p. 118). Hannah and Salmon argue that rhetoricians and technical communicators should intervene in this injustice by “cultivating an intermediary role” and supporting the work of impact litigation organizations struggling against these stigmas and legal obstacles (p. 118). Opportunities for rhetorical intervention include those related to identifying issues, identifying cases and clients, and helping to prepare written and oral communication throughout the “litigation itself” (p. 126).

Following this are a pair of autoethnographic studies by Tianna Cobb and Cynthia Ryan. In “Destigmatizing Black Mental Health: A Black Gay Woman’s Experience,” Cobb describes and analyzes her own experiences seeking mental health support while simultaneously facing social challenges associated with existing as a Black, gay woman. Cobb makes a compelling argument not only for rhetorical interventions into the underutilization of mental health services in Black communities and the mental health stigmas in marginalized communities more broadly (p. 136), but also for the value of autoethnography as a method that offers research with which people of color can “connect with on a personal level” (p. 134). Then, in “An Autoethnographic Examination of Anosognosia in a Sibling Exhibiting Severe Psychosis: Reimagining Inclusiveness in MHRR,” Ryan uses autoethnography to examine “anosognosia,” the term for when someone suffers from a condition but is unaware that they do. Ryan’s contribution is unique in that it calls for rhetorical intervention not just to support those suffering from mental illness but also to “give voice to co-survivors” (p. 162)—that is, to the family members and caregivers who sometimes experience violence and trauma because of their loved one’s mental health struggles.

The final part of Strategic Interventions focuses on “Pedagogical and Co-Curricular Interventions” and contains three chapters. In the first, Lynn Reid addresses a “lack of awareness” regarding student mental health struggles among college instructors (p. 169). Reid describes a faculty development workshop she designed to raise awareness about student mental health struggles and persuade instructors to empathize with students rather than enforcing “rigidly defined (and, at times, inherently ableist) expectations” about student behavior (p. 172). By asking instructors to question their assumptions about “good” student behavior, grit, and rigor, Reid challenges the view that students who don’t live up to instructor’s behavioral expectations are “simply lazy or disengaged” (p. 182).

Leslie R. Anglesey and Adam Hubrig analyze the web presence of university counseling centers and challenge how they “foreground academic productivity as the goal of mental health services” (p. 185). Their analysis finds that these university-sanctioned web pages display a “deep investment in academic success over well-being,” shield the university itself from responsibility, and potentially further stigmatize students in need of long-term mental health support (p. 189). Anglesey and Hubrig then move beyond critique by locating a counterexample in Bowie State University. At that school, an HBCU, students receive sustained mental health support in the form of a “Four-Year-Experience Counseling Program” that includes yearly mental health interviews for all students and a counselor-taught freshman seminar course that introduces students to the mental health resources available to them.

In the book’s final chapter, Barbara George and Rachael Blasiman also examine university web resources. Specifically, George and Blasiman ask how students use the university’s online mental health support tools. The tools they study include those directing students to emergency services and mental health support contacts. Other tools offer messaging that seeks to normalize mental health struggles, scenarios for recognizing when to seek help, and mental health screening. By convening focus groups made up of the university’s students, George and Blasiman discovered that students were largely unaware of these tools’ existence. While students were receptive to these tools, they also felt the resources could use more rhetorically effective messaging and more usable designs. This leads George and Blasiman to urge technical communication scholars to help university web designers develop more user-centered design processes. The study also suggests that classroom introductions to these resources—as well as frequent reminders of their existence—would increase student awareness of, and engagement with, online mental health support tools.

Overall, Strategic Interventions offers a variety of insights about the current state of mental health discourse. While the collection never quite “resolves” the problems of RHM, MHR, or MHRR, it also never claims resolution as a goal. What it does, however, is sketch out a territory for rhetoric in the already interdisciplinary field of mental health. It makes clear that any attempt to “fix” mental health problems—either at the level of the individual patient or at any broader social level—will fail without also considering the implications of language, discourse, and culture. While rhetorical scholars and technical communicators are perhaps the most obvious audience for Strategic Interventions, other groups would benefit from reading it as well. As the book’s title suggests, a primary aim of Strategic Interventions is to challenge status quo approaches to mental health both inside and outside of rhetoric. As such, while the book is firmly grounded in theories and methods of MHR and RHM, its chapters also offer considerable engagement with other disciplines in the humanities, law, social sciences, and health sciences. Some of the book’s contributions, such as those in the book’s third part, will be of particular interest to any higher education administrator concerned with student health, accessibility, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as to university web designers.


Notes on Contributor

Josh Chase is an assistant professor of English at the University of Louisiana Monroe


Reviewed by: Josh Chase, School of Humanities, University of Louisiana Monroe, Monroe, LA