Writers Explore: Mental Illness

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.

How to Treat Mentally Ill Characters When Writing a Novel

You may want to read Rosie Claverton’s “5 Biggest mistakes when writing mental illness“.

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.

100 Must-Read 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.

18 Places To Publish Your Writing About Mental Health Topics

Whizzpast has a list of 8 writers that suffered from poor mental health. That’s where I drew my examples from.

Madder than most? Eight writers who suffered from mental illness

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.

Mental Illness In Fiction: Getting It Right

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?

Creating a safe space for writers

baby hands

Establishing a safe space for writers to share work is one of the most important things a host must do.

As hosts, we have a responsibility to look after the writers that we receive into our gatherings. Some writers, perhaps many writers, are vulnerable people. For some, writing is a way to deal with a great deal of emotional or physical pain.

Sharing what we have written is not so different to being totally naked.

It is very easy to feel exposed or at least a little nervous when sharing our work. After all, it a very intimate expression of our inner-self set before total strangers. As hosts of events, our job is to make our guests feel safe enough to share.

Creating a safe space for writers should be the objective of all hosts and organisers. I don’t know how it is in all writers groups, but I would like to think that most try to do just that.

Encouragement and support

While members are finding their feet within a group, one of the best things we as hosts can do is try to build up their confidence.

This can mean different things in each situation. It may mean encouraging members to give criticism which includes enthusiastic praise for what was done right, rather than focusing on what needs fixing. It may mean simply thanking a member when they share for the first time and acknowledging that the first time is always hard.

Sometimes all we really need to do is remember what it was like when we were starting out and remembering that we are not all on the same level (and that is perfectly fine).

Setting a good example to create a safe space for writers

As hosts, we often set the tone for an event and should be setting an example of exactly what we would like from other members. That’s not always as easy as it sounds.

For example, there have been times when I have been utterly shattered and a budding writer puts some work in my hand that is, frankly, hard to read. When I am tired I find it harder to concentrate on roughly written work and I find it even more tiring to maintain an even tone with my response.

For me, it is a cop-out to hand it back and simply claim “that was very good”. That’s what your mums is supposed to tell you but writers come to a group for more than that.

No matter how tired I am, or how little interest I have in the manuscript in my hands, I know, as host, that I must keep reading until I can give a mix of praise and a candid yet kind appraisal. I need to give something that the writer can use to further their craft.

Giving everyone a fair share of the time

A fair share of the time is not always the same thing as an equal share of the group’s time but the two are fairly similar. Sometimes it can be helpful to allow one member to occupy more time than any other – so long as it is not the same person each week.

On the other hand, it pays to watch out for “the talker”. I am a person that loves to talk – it’s what helps me overcome my own dyslexia and write anyway – but just as I have had to teach myself to shut up and let others speak there are times when the host needs to call time on a person.

If you ask, I will be the first to admit that when I am excited about a subject I can talk about it for a very long time. I mean seriously, have you seen how long this article is?

However, I have become acutely aware of just how much time I can take up talking about my work, about my thoughts on other people’s work, or my reaction to the latest Star Wars film (don’t get me started unless you love Star Wars too). This is why I write blog posts – so I can talk about topics I love and people who find those topics interesting can read them, we both win. But in a group setting, where time is finite we hosts must be a bit more careful.

Give shy people a chance to shine too

Part of creating your safe space for writers is making sure that strong personalities do not unduly dominate.

The talkers in the group can, without meaning to, deny the shyer members of the group a chance to contribute. In an open mic session this is less of a problem as you probably have set time limits but in a group discussion setting, we hosts need to be mindful of how much time any given member is using up.

The talker is usually someone who seems to love the sound of their own voice, or it can be someone like me who just gets very excited about stuff. As hosts, it can be helpful to have a clock or watch handy. It will not be long before it is clear who the most talkative members are. The trick is in figuring out how to gently bring them to a stop and draw out the other members so everyone can contribute.

We also have another responsibility – dealing with keen contributors that do not know what they are talking about. As hosts, we need to be aware of when bad advice is being offered and be ready to offer alternative views.

I can’t tell you how many times I have found myself saying the words “playing devil’s advocate for a moment…” It is a lot, I know that much.

Of course, this also requires that we ourselves know what we are talking about.

Knowing our craft

When people come to events we host, either as writers and poets or just as interested on-lookers, there is an expectation that we, the host, know what we are talking about.

I am not about to suggest that only experts can be hosts, far from it. Yet we must, I feel, do two very important things in this regard.

  1. Do our best to learn the theory of our craft
  2. Be very honest about our own limits

In fact, of the two tasks, honesty is perhaps the most vital and least easy. Let’s be honest, it takes a certain amount of ego to write things down in the expectation that others will find it worth reading. That same ego can often blind us to our own faults and shortcomings.

It is very easy to think that we know everything, or at least most of everything, even when we are barely more than rank amateurs ourselves.

Keeping egos in check

Just as we must make the effort to keep our ego in check, we may also be called upon to keep other egos from overwhelming the group too. That’s not always easy.

There have been times when that rare combination of strong self-confidence, an admitted talent, and many years of writing arrives along with a prima donna attitude. More often, the prima donna attitude is undeserved. In both cases, it is off-putting and intimidating.

I don’t envy the host who finds themselves faced with the task of keeping a huge ego sufficiently contained that the other members still have space to grow. I am not sure that I even have any particularly helpful advice to offer.

Fortunately, I have found that huge egos are not so common. Unfortunately, in place of a huge ego can come with another problem – the potential to overwhelm and bully.

Protection from bullies

Back in 2013 I started hosting writers workshops in my home. I had very little idea what I was doing. I was simply looking to engage with other writers on a topic that I loved. Surprisingly to me, this was a popular idea. But it was that very popularity that brought with it a harsh lesson.

The harsh lesson arrived in the shape of a charismatic yet dominating man. This guy made every effort to take over and control everything he could. He soon figured out who he could lean on to present his ideas for him.

Suddenly we had secret cliques and conflicts arose. “For the good of the group,” he would say before laying out his “reasonable” demands.

It turns out that just because I am a person who wants nothing more than to share a love of writing and to engage in reciprocal kindness and support not everyone is like that. There are those who, if I am honest, are best described as toxic people.

Dealing with toxic people is hard

Dealing with toxic people is hard. Yet, to maintain a safe space for writers, it is something we must do.

Sometimes toxic people are just people with more than their fair share of needs. In which case, good support can help them become better human beings and a great asset to a group. Others, well, with others the best you can do is wish them well and send them on their way. I can tell you this – it is not an easy decision to make.

If you are unlucky enough to have a covert bully among your attendees, they can do a lot of damage. Damage both to the group dynamics and the well-being of your writers. This can happen before you are even aware there is a bully.

Even once you have realised that there is a toxic person in the group, it can be hard – especially if you are somewhat sensitive – to bring yourself to remove them.

From experience, I can tell you that if you let a toxic person put down roots in your community, they can cause a lot of damage on the way out. I have learned that the hard way.

Being the sort of person who is unwilling to give up on anyone, no matter how hopeless the cause, this was not an easy lesson to learn. I can’t say that I have fully learned it yet but I am trying.

Yet, learn this skill I must. It is a vital skill that must be coaxed into existence, in much the same way a difficult scene must me, for the good of all the members who attend.

Setting some ground rules for a safe space for writers

Most of a host’s responsibilities could be summed up in a set of simple group rules. Those rules may be different for each group but they do exist.

Good rules can be an important part of creating a safe space for writers.

Rules such as “only one piece of work to be read per guest”, can help you be consistent. It helps to be consistent with the way you treat the people who attend. If only because people can learn to trust you when they see you are fair.

The “rules” can focus your attention on the areas that need it. I try to work on a rule of “everyone should be allowed an equal share of the allotted time”.

Work out how much time we have and divide that by the number of people. That is how much time it is fair for a single person to take up.

Rules need not be explicitly stated

It is not always necessary to express the rules, or even draw any attention to them at all. As long as you are consistent with your application of the rules, they will soon become part of the culture of the group.

On more than a few occasions, I have been delighted to hear members telling newcomers about the way we do things. I hear them explaining the rules which I’ve used but never told anyone about. There was no need to explain the rules because I was demonstrating them in the way I was acting.

I have noticed that the group culture is something people generally try and fit in with. Rules are there to be broken, it seems. Group culture, on the other hand, can quickly become set in stone. What that group culture will be is entirely down to you. As host, the way we act towards guests sets the tone.

Over to you

Those of us that host events for writers are doing something truly special. We are giving the community something very valuable. It is not always easy but I think it is always worthwhile.

I am sure there are many other things that we hosts can and maybe should be doing to create a safe space for all writers. What one would you add?

Have you been to an event with a particularly great host? What was it about the host that impressed you the most?

Do you host a writers’ event? What challenges have you faced and how did you tackle them? Have you had to deal with any of these issues? How did you approach them and what was the outcome?

Don’t let Imposter Syndrome stop you

imposter syndrome

Impostor syndrome is that nagging feeling that you are really a “fraud” and do not deserve your success.

For us writers, that nagging doubt that we are “not really writers” can be crippling. At Thanet Creative we have been talking about imposter syndrome and how it affects us. Some of our writers expressed surprise that it was actually “a thing” but most of us have felt it at one time or another.

Impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achievers. somewhat ironically the more talented a person is the more likely they are to feel this way. The opposite of impostor syndrome is illusory superiority, a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others.

It could be said that worrying that you are not good enough is a positive thing as it can indicate that you are doing well. On the other hand, the mistaken belief that you are miles better than everyone else should be a red light but often is not.

This disparity in confidence is why mediocre people sometimes out-perform true geniuses. Sometimes a little confidence (even if it is somewhat unjustified) can make all the difference.

According to the Telegraph, impostor syndrome is particularly a problem for women. This could explain why more men than women come to Thanet Creative Writers events. I would love to say that I had all the answers but I don’t. What I can do is tell you that no matter how good or bad you think you might be, just keep writing and you will improve.

In a truly ironic twist of fate, writing therapy is one of the best ways to overcome impostor syndrome. As a writer, if you are worried that you are not good enough, the answer may be to simply do more writing until the nagging doubt gets bored and leaves.

As writers, it is important to remember that if you write, then you are a writer. Something I try to remind myself and other writers on a regular basis.

A couple of years ago Forbes ran a story recommending that you stop comparing yourself to others and own your success. That is some good advice. Remember that if you write, then you are already a writer. So what good can come of negative comparisons?

Qz.com goes one step further, suggesting that if you don’t experience impostor syndrome at least some of the time, then there is a danger that you really are an impostor and don’t realise it. Impostor syndrome, they say, is a sign of success. They might be right.

For more advice, Writers Unboxed have an article on “how to overcome imposter syndrome as a writer” and Writers Hub have a page that advises “how to keep writing despite feeling like a fraud“. Jill Hackett, an author and writing coach, writes about overcoming imposter syndrome and making the transition from being a writer to being an author.

You are not alone in feeling like a fake. The secret is to just keep writing anyway.

Over to you.

  • Do you feel like a fraud?
  • Have you ever been the victim of imposter syndrome?
  • How did you cope and what kept you going?