arts and health Events Psychosis Recovery

Tailored Treatments: graphic novels to communicate health stories

Graphic novels are long-form comics, where words and images are used together to tell a story. Ziggy’s Wish use specialised storytelling techniques to share complex information across diverse audiences.

This week I caught up with Ravi Thornton, founder of Ziggy’s Wish, ahead of an event for her current project, Tailored Treatments. Tailored Treatments is the public engagement component of the wider Cancer and Society in the 21st Century, that looks at how developments in cancer research and care are changing what it’s like to be a cancer patient.

Narrative approaches in health and wellbeing

I first encountered Ziggy’s Wish through the project HOAX: Psychosis Blues in 2014. The HOAX Project was a long-term, ambitious project based on the true story of a young man from Manchester called Rob, his life and diagnosis of schizophrenia, through to his death by suicide. HOAX included the stage musical HOAX My Lonely Heart, and its sequel the graphic novel HOAX Psychosis Blues. Health researchers studied the impact on audiences, and whether engaging with HOAX could lead to positive behaviour change around mental health, and even to recovery.

This project neatly highlighted that when it comes to culture and the arts and health, it is not only direct arts-led interventions that have an impact, but the wider public health implications of having new and engaging ways of understanding people living with particular conditions and their experiences.

Storytelling and mental health

Graphic novels are an ideal way to present multiple points of view, especially when there are many, divergent, or competing points of view, or they revolve around a difficult or complex situation. The combination of images and words can effectively represent issues whilst encouraging audience engagement and understanding.

The ingredients of mental health

In January 2020, the Wellcome Trust launched their mental health programme, a five-year, £200 million commitment to transform how we understand, fund, prevent and treat anxiety and depression in young people. Their emphases are on lived expertise, and an understanding that the ingredients of mental health are highly personal. Grace Gatera, a Lived Experience Advisor for the programme, said about the approach: 

“The active ingredients approach is novel and an out of the box approach. What works for one person, may not work for the other, and to understand this, is to begin to understand the roots of human mental health.”

Professor Miranda Wolpert is leading the programme and reports that:

We found the unexpected, such as links between seemingly diverse active ingredients. For example, ‘learning to be more hopeful’ may be enhanced by ‘better urban access to green space’, or increase the likelihood of young people accessing green spaces in the first place. None of the active ingredients are likely to work on their own, and different approaches will work best for different people. We need to think about how to personalise these approaches and importantly, to give young people the flexibility and agency to make their own choices.

Cancer treatment and the journeys people take are likely to entail challenges that may compromise mental health – of both a patient and those around them. What is also seen, though, is that some people also find benefits in terms of their mental health. Adversity can have unexpected effects. Whatever the experience, we do know that any treatment experience is highly personal and this is why graphic novels and other methods of narrative approaches that emphasise the lived experience are so important.

Tailored Treatments: Author interviews

Ahead of the launch of Tailored Treatments launch (link below), I spoke with Ravi and Stephanie Sinclair, Public Engagement and Knowledge Share Coordinator for the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, University of Edinburgh about their work.

Q: Why do you think graphic novels are a good tool to communicate health stories?

Ravi: Graphic novels are a very stripped-down form of storytelling, and when you strip things down you can get to the nuts and bolts of something much more quickly and simply. They are also immediately accessible because they offer a visual, emotional entry level, which can help overcome barriers to reading or understanding. It’s this spectrum of technical through emotional that makes graphic novels a particularly good fit for health stories; where the balance to be found is often between the health aspect (the condition, the treatment, the medical science, etc) and the person, with all of their human, emotional needs.

For example, with the Tailored Treatments for Cancer: Tale of Research and Care Tailored Treatments for Cancer: Tales of Research and Care graphic novel (launching Feb 19th), the information to be conveyed about the world of personalised cancer medicine was technically complex, and it needed representing in a way that was more relatable to the lay-person. This meant bringing in characters with authentic voices, experiences and emotional reactions. However the aim of the Cancer and Society in the 21st Century project wasn’t just to show what the people involved with tailored treatments go through, but to help generate a fair, honest and productive conversation around personalised cancer medicine’s many strands, and how they might be shaped in the future. Finding that balance between the emotional and informational was a challenging task, but the graphic novel format really does lend itself to that.

Image from graphic novel, Tailored Treatments

Q: What do you think about the participants’ own stories?

Ravi: I think they’re incredible. Every one of them. The openness, the depth of feeling, the diversity of experience, the inventiveness and unleashed creativity. Tailored Treatments for Cancer: Tell Your Story is a hugely inspiring and humbling collection.

Knowing too the personal processes that each participant went through to create their story: the generosity, the willingness to dig deep and to share, the want and the need to help push the conversation around tailored treatments, the desire to help others who might face similar difficulties. All of this required strength, giving, and a significant degree of trust in Ziggy’s Wish as we carried them through the workshop. I’m very grateful for that trust, and for the twelve graphic short stories that resulted; and I urge everyone to visit the Tailored Treatments website to read them.

Stephanie Sinclair, Public Engagement and Knowledge Share Coordinator for the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, University of Edinburgh:

Q: Why did you want to produce a graphic novel about the research?

Stephanie: The Cancer and Society in the 21st Century research project involved interviews with cancer patients, their families, scientists, healthcare professionals and the wider public. As well as publishing the research it felt really important to produce something more public-facing which would be accessible to patients, their families and other interested people. At the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society we have found that collaborating with artists can be an effective way to reach different audiences and to enable our researchers to think about their work in new ways. We saw the funding call from the ScotPEN Wellcome Engagement Award and thought this would be a great opportunity to create something around the theme of personalised cancer treatments. Graphic novels are really powerful and engaging so fitted the bill perfectly and the funding enabled us to work with Ziggy’s Wish and bring in all their storytelling expertise. 

Q: What have you learnt from the project?

Stephanie: A lot! Personally I have learnt a lot about graphic novels and storytelling from the experts at Ziggy’s Wish and this gives me food for thought about future engagement projects. The researchers have all really valued and enjoyed the experience too. Sarah Cunningham-Burley commented that ‘Working with Ziggy’s Wish, in that room on that day, had simply made our work feel more human’ and Emily Ross said that ‘Representing patients’ stories graphically made me think about their experiences in new ways.’ And like everyone else in 2020 we all learnt a lot along the way about adapting to working at home and how to run a storytelling workshop through Zoom. 

The following websites are live from Feb 19th 2021:

Tailored Treatments for Cancer: Tales of Research and Care

and Tailored Treatments for Cancer: Tell Your Story

and Tailored Treatments website

Book here to attend a celebratory event to mark the publication of the Personalised Cancer Medicine book and the Tailored Treatments graphic novel:

Credits for all:


Illustrator RHIANA JADE

with additional credit for cover:

I'm a British clinical psychologist with a research background. I manage the Greater Manchester i-THRIVE Arts, Culture and Mental Health Programme, part of the national transformation of children's services. I also have an NHS clinical role in Lancaster and Morecambe working with children, young people and families (CAMHS). I began this blog in 2017 to record a WCMT Travelling Fellowship, from a research role at Arts for Health, Manchester Metropolitan University. I began clinical psychology training (DCLinPsy, Lancaster) in 2010, and studied the role of creativity in bipolar disorder, because of the known links, and partly due to my own experiences of creatively managing extremes of mood in adolescence and throughout my 20s. I have worked in several university psychology research departments including Manchester University in suicide prevention, the Spectrum Centre for Mental Health Research at Lancaster University (notable for service user expertise), and on the Dementia & Imagination research programme.

2 comments on “Tailored Treatments: graphic novels to communicate health stories

  1. Nice one Kat.





  2. Brilliant Kat


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