A Guide to...
Writing Mental Health

I was lurking on the Labryinth forum when Skulleyes proposed the following question in the Writing thread: How do you not glorify mental illness? This made me think – well, how do you glorify mental illness?

And then for the rest of the day, thoughts about the glorification/not glorification of mental illness compulsively intruded my mind. I just had to know. I had to get the bottom of this because... well... obviously, something terrible was going to happen if I didn't!

"Now you know how I feel," says a person with OCD, rolling his eyes and proceeding to lock his front door a hundred times.

I suppose now I realize what Skulleyes meant. I think she was asking; how do we write about mental illness without making it seem like a picnic for those who suffer from it? How do we write something with depth; how do we write without trivializing or idolising the issue?

The answer isn't simple, because the concept of mental health isn't simple. But if you want to open that sweet can of controversial worms anyway, here are some things you might want to consider:

Are you an Unreliable Narrator?

A storytelling tool used in some stories to explore mental illness is the Unreliable Narrator. This is usually 1st person POV from the view of someone who is clearly abnormal in some way. By using an Unreliable Narrator, you can set up a character with a point of view that readers just can't 100% buy into. It forces the reader to think critically for himself.

It might be in the way the character thinks about people as objects. I'm only befriending you so I can play your Play Station.

It might be the way the character seems to fixate and obsess on strange things. That man's looking at me. WHY IS HE LOOKING AT ME?!

It might be the way the character is stating clear falsehoods as facts. Penguins are three meters tall.

They're not aliens, you know? Or are they?

People who live with mental illness aren't aliens from outer space. Wouldn't it be cool if they were? It's not a matter of them vs us, it's more a matter of continuum. Think about it this way: anyone could theoretically break an arm just as anyone could theoretically become mentally ill at one point or another in their lives. Some people have brittle bones, and their bones break easily. Other people don't produce the right amount/types of neurotransmitters, or have some other physical condition that predisposes them to symptoms of mental illness. Mental illness isn't something that we talk about at an arm's distance; it's actually something a lot of people have walked with, or will walk with at some point in their lives.

Don't believe me? Well, one in three university students have had thoughts of suicide (I found this because I didn't just want to quote ye olde boring depression statistics). And these bright youngens with brilliant minds are supposed to be the functioning future of our society.

If I lost my legs, I'd probably still be ok

When diagnosing and treating mental illness, you'd typically ask something along the lines of "So, how does that affect you?", to which some of the more angry and assuming clients might retort, "How do you think it affects me, you stupid (expletive, expletive, expletive)?", in which case you'd probably want to duck behind your chair before a flying object hits you in the face.

The first question addresses the matter of function. Someone may well present with many signs of mental illness, but if there's no impact on their quality of life, then it's not really an issue.

It's like this: If a labourer lost his leg, it would have a severe impact on him. He'd go on a disability pension. He'd never work again. But if, say, I lost my leg, I'd probably be ok in my cruisy office job. I wouldn't like it, but on the grand scheme of things, my life function would be relatively unchanged.

When writing about someone with mental illness, it is important to consider how the symptoms affect them. You could have a character with intense, severe symptoms, but they seem to function ok. Or, you could have a character with a minor illness, but it gives their world a shake-down.

You wouldn't understand. In my family, it's ok to trip balls

There are some symptoms of mental illness that wouldn't count given the context in which they occur. For example, in Australia, many of the indigenous people are quite intensely spiritual and may experience auditory and visual 'hallucinations' and have 'distorted beliefs' about the ways of the world. But that is NOT schizophrenia. It is an acceptable cultural phenomenon, and it would be detrimental to the quality of life and identity for the indigenous Australians if their spiritual practices were classified as cray-cray.

When writing about mental illness, don't ignore context. Be sensitive to what's acceptable and not acceptable in the world you're building.

Mental Illness is not Anxiety/Depression

That's not to say that anxiety and depression aren't mental illnesses; they're just not the only ones. Neither is schizophrenia. Neither is anorexia. Neither is OCD. Neither is Borderline Personality Disorder.

Neither is Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Autism and Aspergers Syndrome, by the way, are actually Pervasive Developmental Disorders which can include impairment to social and cognitive functioning. And! Did you know, that Aspergers isn't even a thing anymore? In the fancy new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5, Aspergers has been reclassified as High Functioning Autism, which, let's face it, were already the same thing. A shame really, because it strips future generations of the ability to self-identify as an 'aspie'.

But I digress. And now I'm just showing off, aren't I?

Point is, there's a lot of stuff out there. You don't have to just write about anxiety and depression.


21.2.14 - Thanks Liz for picking up the error. :)