Writers Explore: Mental Illness
Mental illness is a topic that has long fascinated writers. Mental illness has been the topic of many different stories, with varying degrees of accuracy and success.
One hurdle we writers must overcome to tell an authentic story is how we get away from cliches and stereotypes of mental illness. This first episode of “Writers Explore” we look at mental illness from the perspective of a writer.
What is mental health?
Before we dive into what it means to suffer a loss of mental health (mental illness) it may help to establish exactly what we mean by mental health.
Mental illness is not a plot device.
Mental illness – especially schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder (entirely separate things by the way) – these are not simply convenient plot devices.
It is not okay to simply cite madness as the reason your character is being weird. Mental illness is not an excuse to have no reason for a character’s behaviour. Mental illness, just like cancer or arthritis, has an underlying mechanism. It has a cause. There is a root cause for the suffering.
Towards the end of a blog post “Mental Illness as a plot device and other bad ideas“, Drew Chial says this:
You have to be careful when you identify a character’s disorder. Your portrayal must be nuanced, not grandiose. Not only do you run the risk of losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, you run the risk of offending them.
I would go further.If your entire understanding of mental illness is something you saw on TV and a little bit of trash quality pop-psychology, then you have no business writing about mental illness.
Convenient mental breaks, laser-guided amnesia, and other trashy plotting should be added to the list of hack writing techniques that we need to avoid.
Mental ill-health is not a fun addition to a character. Mental health is not a nice way to make a character more interesting. It is a complex set of societal judgements, burdens and problems to be overcome.
Jessica Dall writes in her blog post “Plot device disorders” about:
…the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,
She is right to point it out – mental illness is never “fun”.
Schizophrenia: A tale of mental illness.
“Is it okay if I totally trash your office?” It’s a question Elyn Saks once asked her doctor, and it wasn’t a joke. A legal scholar, in 2007 Saks came forward with her own story of schizophrenia, controlled by drugs and therapy but ever-present. In this powerful talk, she asks us to see people with mental illness clearly, honestly and compassionately.
Suicide: Terminal mental illness.
When the illness becomes too much, when hope diminishes, mental illness can lead to death. But it is a death that we too frequently do not understand.
We often hear people saying “I don’t understand why she would do that,” and “why would he take his own life?” That’s when we hear a compassionate response. Too often I hear people write off suicide as stupid, as selfish, as “just a cry for help”. All that tells me is that the person speaking does not understand.
It is not a case of just “cheering up”.
I’m just going to put this out there: If you write a character with depression or mental illness and by the end of the book they get the girl, get the promotion, or win the day and are suddenly fine – you failed as a writer. Whatever you were writing about it was not a mental illness it was just a self-absorbed gloomy Gus. No one wants to read that nonsense.
This was something that Ruby Wax talked about when she gave a TED talk on mental illness – the stigma of mental illness. Why is it, she asks, that you get sympathy when you get sick in any organ of the body apart from the brain?
Show us the full story of mental illness.
If you are going to write about mental illness it is not enough to simply understand the condition. As we said in creating compelling female characters, the way society responds is part of the picture too.
With a mental illness, that reaction is often negative. Rarely is ist negative through malice but through ignorance.
This is because mental illness is often seen as a taboo subject. It is frequently repeated that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Yet we rarely talk about it.
Not only that but, right now, it is deeply likely that a person in the UK with a mental illness is not going to receive adequate care and support. The NHS has been forced to slash money from the mental health budget again and again. According to King’s Fund, three-quarters of people who suffer mental illness go untreated.
There has been an ongoing historic inequality between the way physical and mental health are treated in the NHS. This is a huge political issue that is not going away anytime soon. As writers, we are well placed to widen the discussion about these issues and shed some light on what is going on. But first, we have to know what it is like.
The mentally ill as targets for cuts
I don’t want to get too policial with this guide but benefits and the way claimants are treated forms part of the larger story of mental health. The way they are treated is often appalling. There are a number of reports that Jobcentre managers are pressured to sanction and push the mentally ill off of benefits to save money.
Sanctions have risen in both numbers and proportion terms from the late 2000s.
- Mother-of-three Angie Godwin, 27, said her benefits were sanctioned after she applied for a role jobcentre staff said was beyond her.
- Michael, 54, had his benefits sanctioned for four months for failing to undertake a week’s work experience at a charity shop. The charity shop had told him they didn’t want him there.
- John, 40, was unable to leave the house due to an anxiety attack he was sanction for not attending a DWP assessment.
This is a part of the story that is rarely told. It is a grim fact that being mentally ill in the UK is a total nightmare.
Try to imagine dealing with all that while also facing something like this young lady (Cecilia McGough) faced:
Writing what we know – writers who suffer from mental illness.
For writers as with many creative types periods of poor mental health are not uncommon. In fact, writing can be one of the best therapies for dealing with mental health conditions – especially depression and trauma.
Many writers have famously batted mental illness:
- Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is believed to have suffered from a bipolar disorder.
- Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) reportedly suffered from a deep depression, especially in later life.
- Ernest Hemingway (1889-1961) suffered from very poor mental health descending into alcoholism before he finally committed suicide.
I could go on but I think you get the point.
It is important not to suffer alone. When the black dog is barking, please reach out. At Thanet Creative, many of our writers know what it is like to go down that road. When things seem most hopeless, that’s when staying connected matters the most.
If despair is grinding you down, I beg of you to speak up.
How to write a mentally ill character.
Very briefly I’d like to list some of the more important considerations when writing a character with mental illness.
1. Know what you are talking about
If it is not obvious by now, I am firmly convinced that the only way to write about mental health is to understand not just the condition itself but the way people react to it.
2. Make the character relatable
This is almost a universal rule but do not allow yourself to get lost in the mental health issues and forget that you need to write a character that I, as a reader, can relate to. People who suffer from mental illness are still people. They are no different to you or me – having a mental illness does not make me a monster.
3. Keep the story (plot and narrative) central
Your story is about a character who happens to have mental illness. Mental illness is not the story. The character’s struggles with the world arround them – that is the story.
4. Specify the details of the condition, at least in your head
Mental illness is not generic. It is specific. The symptoms and struggles that go with that condition will be specific to the character. So you cannot portray mental illness unless you know which illness you are portraying. Pretty obvious when you think about it.
5. Don’t get lost in the internal world
While you might find the condition you are writing about fascinating, like any good storyteller, you need to prune back the details and focus on the story. Just like anything else you might choose to put in a story, show don’t tell. Pull back the curtain and show us this world but try not to get lost in there.
6. Tell a good story
While you are doing all that, don’t forget that you need to tell a good story. How you do that is a whole other article.
Mental Illness: Further Reading.
The bustle has a list of novels that give (in their opinion) the most realistic portrayals of mental health issues. But what else is there to read about mental illness and writing?
Writers Digest has a great broad strokes overview of how to write mentally ill characters.
You may want to read Rosie Claverton’s “5 Biggest mistakes when writing mental illness“.
As writers, our work often starts with reading. Book Riot has a list of 100 books about mental illness.
Beyond your blog has a list of places to be published when writing about mental health topics. Sadly, there are not that many paid publications.
Whizzpast has a list of 8 writers that suffered from poor mental health. That’s where I drew my examples from.
Dan Koboldt writes “Mental Illness in fiction: Getting it right“. He, quite rightly, points out that OCD is not humorous and it is okay to talk about suicide. In fact, it may be healthy for us to talk about suicide just a little more openly.
Over to you
No matter how much we write about the topic there will always be much more that has been left unsaid. It is just one of those large topics, that way.
- Have you suffered from mental illness? What were your experiences of it and how has it influenced your writing?
- What advice would add for writers wanting to tackle to mental health?
- Which mental health issues would you like to see given a more sympathetic treatment by modern writers?