Mental Health Awareness: How to Be Respectful Toward Mental Health in Books
The sadistic but attractive CEO, the sociopathic killer, the anxious teenager on diet pills—for long, writers have used various aspects of mental illness as unfortunate plot points to move their stories ahead.
Categorizing them all in neat little boxes, each of these characters either meets their doom or recovery because a manic pixie dream girl (or boy) enters their lives and changes it forever.
But that is not how mental health works, is it? You do not recover from a mental illness like it is a cold because medication in the form of a wholesome human being falls in love with you.
So, how about we start being respectful of that?
How to Write about Mental Health in Books
For anyone with a mental health issue like anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or more, the worst feeling associated with it, is the fact that they feel alone.
They read about seemingly ordinary characters resolving their issues or their anger with minimal effort. As a result, they feel alone. As if something is wrong with them, that it is their fault, they can’t get over their trauma or effects of the mental illness.
As writers, we must make our readers understand that mental illness is not something so simple to maneuver around.
The phrase “every person is different” could not be more accurate than in the context of mental health. You may experience depression, but your mental background, the intensity of your situation, even your physical health affects how any mental trauma affects you.
And that is what we have to include in our work.
Being the author of trilogy, the main character in my fiction and fantasy books, The Black Shade of White, is surrounded by some brutal realities and incidents that would scare even the most hardened of detectives. But does Sophie ever feel traumatized or disturbed by what happens?
With such moments of trauma, you cannot force your main character to behave as if nothing in the world bothers them.
With mental health, you have to be as realistic as possible in portraying the effects of different illnesses. If this includes showing your character to have night terrors, PTSD, and increased anxiety, then do so. Doing any less makes your characters unbelievable.
Learning about Mental Health
As readers ourselves, we are at a point in time where ignorance toward mental illness cannot be dismissed.
So, the best way to start writing responsible scripts that portray mental health accurately is by researching the mental illness itself, instead of relying on stereotypes.
Depression often does not show in patients unless they specifically say they have depression. Anxiety does not always involve people getting anxiety attacks or being antisocial. A person with an eating disorder will not necessarily have hollow cheekbones and a sallow skin tone. And a person who experienced sexual assault will not likely shy away from all sexual encounters, dismissing a person of the opposite sex as a criminal.
And more importantly, mental illnesses are not gender-exclusive. Men experience mental illnesses as much as women, so portraying men as stoic, strong, immovable objects, and women as simpering little beings will only ruin any potential your book has.
You have to let go of these preconceived notions before writing any form of story on mental illness; otherwise, your readers will sniff these mistakes out reasonably quickly.
Read books that portray mental health accurately. Consult a mental health professional. And read manuals on mental illnesses. And when writing, be careful about the language you use. Words like retarded, crazy, psycho, freak, stupid, nasty—not only are these derogatory; they are simply unacceptable.
Be empathetic when writing about mental health and put yourself into a person’s shoes that have the mental illness you are portraying. You will find that your words will hit differently...