Winnie the Pooh, and Mental Health too

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 4 February 2020

Author AA Milne wrote:

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.

“There, there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”

Winnie the Pooh is a fictional teddy bear created by AA Milne in 1926. With his friends Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore he goes on many adventures, particularly those involving food. He goes out of his way to look out for his friends, especially if visiting them involves an audience for his poetry or a little snack.

Psychologist Dr Sarah Shea theorised that Winnie the Pooh and his friends displayed symptoms typical of psychological illnesses. She aligned their symptoms with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which provides definitions of mental illnesses.

Dr Shea made the following observations:

Winnie the Pooh suffers from more than one disorder. Most obvious is his ADHD, displayed in his impulsive behaviour and inability to concentrate on much, other than Honey!

Piglet displays classic symptoms of anxiety, which Shea concludes were not appropriately assessed when he was young, leading to the emotional trauma he experienced while attempting to trap heffalumps.

For any of us that know the stories of Winnie the Pooh well, it would not surprise us to hear that Eeyore suffers from depression.

Finally, Tigger displays a recurring pattern of risk-taking behaviours. When he first arrived at the Hundred Acre Wood, he quickly tried honey, haycorns and even thistles with no knowledge of the potential outcome of his experimentation.

AA Milne wrote the books on his return from France after the First World War. In the cinematic portrayal of his life, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Milne is portrayed as someone troubled by visions of fallen comrades. It is likely that he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and took to writing his inner turmoil into the stuffed animal occupants of 100 Acre Wood.

The stories of Winnie the Pooh provide us with a way of talking about our own Mental Health. By normalising the experience of living with a mental illness, reflected in our favourite childhood characters, we are able to talk about the things that trouble them, and by proxy the things that bother us.

We can also learn something by looking at the interactions in the book. Despite their own trials, the residents of 100 Acre wood interact with love and acceptance, modelling behaviour on how to treat others. The stories are full of examples of how humans should behave when faced with people with mental health. Sometimes the gesture of tea and honey, and being with others, is all it takes to turn a bad day into something a little better.

If Winnie the Pooh isn’t your cup of tea, Judaism also provides something similar through the stories of our ancient prophets. Many of our prophets present a highly unsettled mental state and therefore give us a mirror through which to view ourselves and our own trials.

When we read their stories, with our modern-day lens we can see characteristics of depression in many of their behaviours, including that of Jeremiah, Elijah, Jonah and Saul, to name but a few. We see it displayed in many ways, from their body language as they stoop low to their interactions as they pull away and isolate themselves.

Whether through bears or prophets, may we find the language we need to talk about how we are feeling. May we use the tools around us to start the conversation and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, giving voice to those suffering silently and in fear.  May we find the outlets we need, here in this gift of community, and may we be sustained by the strength of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom – may we have a healthy and restorative Shabbat