Looking through the Bell Jar Working with mental illness Part 1

As part of my holiday reading this year, I picked up “The Bell Jar”  by Sylvia Plath.[i] This is  short, semi autobiographical, and the only novel by Sylvia written in the 1960s, just weeks before her own suicide. It took me less than a day to read, but my mind has been looping from one scene to another ever since I have put it down. What could this book from 60 years ago about the right of passage of a girl to womanhood have to offer?

I identified very strongly with the character Esther, and her struggles to fit in. She was, like me, white, privileged, attended a good school, good university, with a considerable degree of success. She was respected and connected well with her teachers, and enjoyed a level of indulgence from them that enabled her to mould her courses to suit her preferences. She had many adults around her who supported her, encouraged her, and saw themselves as contributing to her success at that time in her life. She reflected their high expectations as well as her own.

Striving to achieve, filled a large part of her life, and propelled her forward. This was something that she could do, and feel a level of satisfaction about. Her individual pursuit of the next “A”, the next prize, the next scholarship, kept her in her comfort zone and within her window of tolerance.

Life then became more complicated.  She traveled to New York, for an internship with others of her age from all over the US- a situation that could not be any more different from where she had come from and of which she had personal experience. She was supposed to be having the time of her life! [ii] She was faced with many different choices, different pathways outside what she was familiar with. She found herself interacting with others who expected something very different from her then she was used to. She struggled to find anyone to connect with on a deeper level whom she could anchor herself to, she gravitated from one to the other, and started to unravel.

I can recall the feelings of not fitting in, not being comfortable, and  feeling adrift with no clear idea of how to cope. I can remember shifting from one person within my circle to the next, trying to be what they expected in order to be accepted and wanted. I can still feel the disconnect when I finally had to accept that there was no compatibility, and I was floundering, not knowing what the next step should be.

Esther had not yet developed the security of knowing who she was, what she wanted to stand for, and to feel comfortable standing up for this. She did not have the ability to adapt and to practice resilience. There is no mention of any other close friends, no sign that she was able to bounce ideas off her peers, to explore, and evolve her thinking about personality, relationships  and values. She lacked a sense of connectedness, somewhere she felt safe to be herself and accepted unconditionally.

Esther discards the trappings of her internship in New York and returns to the familiarity of home. The disconnect however continues for her, she unravels further, and ends up in a mental health facility. This part of her journey gives valuable insight. The stress upon her is intense and ongoing, and impacts on her physical and mental health. For her it is liked being trapped inside a glass bell jar- unable to see the world the way it really is, and impossible for those on the outside to really see what is happening for her inside the bell jar.  

Once she feels the glass bell jar descend upon her, Esther despairs, as it did not matter what happened “she would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in her own sour air”.[iii] She describes her powerlessness as “the air of the bell jar wadded around her so that she could not stir”. [iv] It was only a move to the private mental health system, a connection with a doctor who listened to her and cared about her, that enabled her to become “surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above her head. She was open to the circulating air.” [v] Esther’s experience in the asylum enabled her to look beyond her own personal experience and appreciate that “we all sit under bell jars of a sort [vi] and cannot be sure that the bell jar with its stifling distortions would not descend again.” [vii]

This powerful image spoke to me very strongly. Esther describes being trapped inside with a distorted view of the world outside.  Having her voice heard, connecting properly with those on the outside, this is the key to her eventual progress through the mental health system, freeing herself from the bell jar and  getting back to the outside.

Esther showed me what it might feel like to experience mental illness and have the bell jar descend. She showed that it is a journey over time, and involves a sense of powerlessness,  chaos, uncertainty and desperation. For her, the ups and downs were very dependent on those she met along the way. The ups often accompanied by respect, patience, kindness, and collaboration- some understanding of what it might be like to be under that bell jar, and the willingness and skills to accept, connect and work with someone in a non-judgmental manner, could make all the difference!

This year I have experienced a marked increase in the number of separations I have assisted with, that have been characterized by issues of mental health. Separation is often accompanied by chaos, uncertainty and desperation. It is not surprising that these stressors often impact on mental wellbeing and can result in mental illness. As a family lawyer and family dispute resolution practitioner I am not trained to treat mental health conditions, but in the same way that I must understand and response appropriately to other aspects of family situations (including family violence, the impacts of trauma, and substance abuse) I must be able to recognise the signs when mental health has been affected, and have a plan of how to go about dealing with this.

Reflecting on the insights from The Bell Jar and my recent experiences with those struggling with mental health, I believe that the following are important messages for working in this space:

• always be open, non-judgmental and accepting of the lived reality of what is presented;

• practice deep listening to build rapport and establish an atmosphere of respect and trust;

• prioritise safety and confidentiality as far as possible;

• establish good referral partners, and be clear as to professional boundaries and where outside support is required;

• create a variety of materials including referrals to other professionals, written resources, links to other organisations, and recommendations for support groups;

• encourage a collaborative approach with the support team, including professionals, family and friends where appropriate, to share the load;

• manage expectations in a gentle but realistic manner;

• provide information as to options, with advantages and disadvantages, and leave choice and therefore empowerment up to the person involved;

• ensure consistent follow up;

• be clear up front about what safety issues might impact on your role, what these look like, and what the consequences would be if this line is crossed- have a plan clearly worked out in advance so this is understood from the outset;

• appreciate that this work is stressful, and you must not only look out for those you are working with, but also yourself!

Useful resources can be found at:

Beyond Blue

Family Relationships Online

Relationships Australia

Black Dog Institute

[i] The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 2005 Edition Faber & Faber

[ii] Ibid page 2

[iii] Ibid page 178

[iv] Ibid page 178

[v] Ibid page 206

[vi] Ibid page 227

[vii] Ibid page 230

More resources