Dos And Don’ts of Writing About Mental Illness

Hello everyone! I’ve been pretty quiet on here lately, but I want to get back into posting some more “how to” writing content. I love writing things like this, so today we’re going to dive into a not-at-all-controversial topic: how to handle the topic of mental illness in your writing. It is imperative that mental illness, and those who live with mental illness, are treated with respect, dignity and honesty, so I’ve compiled a few handy Do’s and Don’ts for approaching the topic of mental illness and writing characters with mental illness.

Before we start, I want to make a quick note on language. As I speak about further down in this article, the language we use is important and we should always do our best to respect that. However, people have different preferences about the language used to describe them. In this article, I have mainly used “person first” language (this is because I’m a uni student, and this is what we’re asked to do, and also it bulks out essays wonderfully), e.g. using person/people/characters with mental illness. Occasionally, I have also used the term mentally ill, but since this is not preferred language for many people, I have kept this to a minimum.

With all that out of the way, let’s have a look at mental illness in our writing!

Do…Treat Your Characters Like People

Before we go too deeply into the dos and don’ts of writing characters with mental illnesses, I want to remind you that, at their heart, characters with mental illnesses are characters first and foremost. Just as people with mental illnesses are people first and foremost.

Remember to give your characters with mental illness the same respect and depth you give your non-mentally ill characters. Take the time to flesh them out beyond their condition. Consider their hobbies, their loves, their dislikes, and their dreams. Treat them as you would any other character. When authors take the time to consider their mentally ill characters as actual characters and develop them the same way they develop their other characters, it’s very difficult to go wrong.

Don’t…Rely on Stereotypes

In the same vein as above, don’t rely on stereotypes! While stereotypes often become stereotypes because they are rooted in a kernel of truth, the majority of stereotypes about mental illness are damaging and cruel. For example, the trope of the mentally ill villain portrays people with mental illnesses as disturbed, evil, and without conscience. This is not the case at all, since people with mental illness are still people, they have the same capacity for good and evil as anyone else does. Having schizophrenia or bipolar disorder does not make someone more likely to kill or harm others.

Other stereotypes pop up regularly, both in real life and in fiction. People with depression are often portrayed as lazy and unhygienic, a stereotype that trivialises and demeans the struggles of living with depression. This often debilitating condition is treated as the punchline of a joke. When people read about these misconceptions in fiction, it changes their perception of these illnesses in real life.

Instead of relying on old and damaging cliches, take the time to research the mental illness your character has, whether that’s anxiety, PTSD, or Dissociative Identity. Talk to people who live with the condition in their day-to-day lives, read books written by people with mental illness, and view their art. Try to capture the authentic experience of living with a mental illness, rather than the old, tired tropes that appear again and again in fiction.

When we take the time to develop our characters beyond the stereotypes, we are contributing to an honest and heartfelt portrayal of mental illness, one that people living with these conditions will appreciate and relate to.

Do…Consider the Impact of Mental Illness

Too often, I see authors slap a mental illness diagnosis onto their characters in an attempt to be “diverse” or “woke”. It’s becoming more popular to represent illness and disability in storytelling, which is great and should be encouraged, but we also shouldn’t be portraying mental illness because it’s the trendy thing to do at the moment.

A mental illness is a lot more than just a label that a psychologist or psychiatrist slaps onto you. It affects every aspect of your life, changing the way you interact with your family, your friends, your job, and your social circle. Unfortunately, authors often forget this. They give a character a diagnosis, give them a few symptoms here and there, and then abruptly forget about this illness when it becomes inconvenient to the plot.

Instead of taking the easy way out, consider how mental illness affects your character’s life. As mentioned in the previous section, talk to people with the illness and see how the symptoms and side effects of their condition affect them. For example, I have anxiety. This causes a lot of distressing mental and emotional symptoms, but it also causes flare-ups of my physical disability, affecting my pain and fatigue levels. This is something I very rarely see portrayed in fiction.

If you want a great example of mental illness affecting every facet of a character’s life, look no further than Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games. Katniss has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it wriggles its way into everything she thinks, says, and does. It affects who she chooses to marry, whether or not she has children, who she trusts, what she says, how she dresses, and how she interacts with those around her. In this series, PTSD is not just represented by her flashbacks and nightmares, it’s represented by every action, thought, and plan she makes.

Don’t…Villainise Mental Illness

We’ve already touched on this briefly, but it’s an important concept and we need to explore it more. Do not villainise mental illness. While anxiety, depression, and PTSD are fairly common, and we all probably know someone with these conditions, even if we don’t live with them ourselves, there are other less common illnesses which are almost exclusively depicted as villainous.

Schizophrenia is a great example of this. While there are very few characters in media who are canonically schizophrenic, the characters who are often said to be schizophrenic (either by “Word of God” or by headcanon) are usually villains, often comic book villains such as Two-Face from Batman. On the occasions that schizophrenia is explicitly named, it is usually for criminals in crime shows such as Criminal Minds and NCIS, where mentally ill murderers are unfortunately common. Dissociative Identity Disorder also suffers from this treatment regularly, where clever twists rely on a person having a “good” side and a “murderous” side. This is the main plot of a Temperance Brennan book, where the murderer is a young woman with multiple personalities, one of which is a murderer.

However, these depictions are misleading. It is incredibly rare for people with mental illness to harm others, and they are in fact, much more likely to be victims of violence, rather than perpetrators. As we discussed above, mentally ill people have the same capacity for good and bad that everyone else does, however the media portrayals of people with mental illness skew extremely sharply toward the “violent” and “dangerous” depictions of mental illness.

Do…Write Honestly

On the other end of the spectrum, some people choose to romanticise mental illness. This is probably more common in films and TV than it is in books, but it does insidiously spreads its influence over media either way. Romanticised depictions of mental illness include things like 13 Reasons Why, where suicide lets Hannah Baker fulfill her revenge fantasies. Or, putting the “romantic” in romanticising, a love story where true love conquers all, including lifelong mental illness.

Another problematic aspect of this romanticisation is the mentally ill “aesthetic”, where a specific diagnosis, particularly depression, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders, are depicted on sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr with gloomy, dark photos, covered with edgy faux-poetry. Some of these read: “Don’t ask me how I’ve been, don’t make me play pretend”, over beautiful, visually pleasing photography or artwork. In other words, Tumblr makes mental illness into an aesthetic no different from cottagecore or dark academia, something you can take on and off and change at will.

It isn’t quirky or fun to be mentally ill, and when a lot of media swung away from the mentally ill villain trope, it ran straight into the arms of the glamorous mental illness.

What fiction needs are honest depictions of what it’s like to have a mental illness. It needs to recognise that depression can be horrible and debilitating, but that people can still have fun and be joyful, have dreams and goals and achieve them. We shouldn’t be romanticising the illness, but we should be acknowledging that it is not necessarily all-consuming. I have anxiety and I don’t think that’s cool or fun, and I would rather get rid of it, but it’s part of me and I’m still a person, even with this illness. I would never romanticise the experience of having anxiety, but at the same time I’m going to acknowledge that life is good, and life is beautiful and hard, and full of grief and worry.

People, and our characters, are multi-faceted and complex. Readers, with and without mental illnesses, deserve to see both our struggles and our joys, our pain and our triumph. The hollow days where we feel numb, and the fulfilling days where we feel ecstatic, all portrayed in their full messiness and honesty.

Don’t…Trivialise Or Mock Mental Illness

“You are so OCD!”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this statement, I would have two dollars. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird it happened twice.

People have called me OCD because I have good attention to detail and once I notice an issue, I have to fix it. And, in the opinions of several people, this makes me “so OCD!”

In reality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is much more than wanting to tidy things or fix mistakes. It’s a disorder that, without proper treatment, can overtake people’s lives, ruling everything they do with nightmarish terrors. Reducing such a serious illness to a jibe about someone liking clean spaces, or being pedantic is demeaning and insulting to people who live with OCD every day.

As writers, we are aware that words control emotions and thoughts. Words have the power to both hurt and heal, and unfortunately, much of the language surrounding mental illness is hurtful.

The prevalence of words like “mad”, “insane”, and “psycho”, particularly when used to label bad people, is extremely damaging. These words reinforce the old stereotypes we’ve already talked about, that mentally ill people are dangerous and should be feared. Using “psychopath” or “sociopath” to refer to people who do horrible things is harmful to real people with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the majority of which are not serial killers.

Of course, there are also the more unconscious ways we talk and write that go beyond our choice of individual words. How many pieces of media have you seen that use a depressed character as shorthand for being lazy or unmotivated? There’s no other reason someone would stay in a dark room all day without showering or brushing their teeth, is there? We need to be careful of the words we use, the way we present our characters, and the subliminal messaging that comes through our writing. There will be some tips for avoiding this pitfall in the next section.

Do…Seek Out Lived Experience

My final tip, which we’ve touched on a few times already, is to seek out the voices of people who have lived experience. While you can research as much as physically possible, at the end of the day, nothing beats the voice of lived experience.

People with mental illnesses know the ins and outs of their conditions more thoroughly than anyone else ever could. They can give you tips about your representation, correct myths that you may be completely unaware of, or offer a new perspective on something you’d never considered before. They can explain the ways mental illness affects their life and describe how they’ve been impacted by romanticised or villainised depictions of their illnesses.

Even if you have a mental illness yourself, I would still suggest seeking out others with the mental illness you’re depicting. Anxiety is a completely different experience from bipolar, and PTSD is a completely different experience from psychosis, even if many illnesses share overlapping symptoms. And even if you do have the same illness as your character, it always helps to have a second (or third!) pair of eyes go over your work. Maybe you’ve included word choices that you don’t find offensive, but the majority of other people do. Maybe you’re concerned that your character with bipolar is verging on villainous and you want a second opinion.

That’s the why in a nutshell, but what about the how? How do we go about finding these voices? The good news is that there are so many ways, depending on your budget and project! You could find someone to interview, seek out a memoir, chat with a friend (with their permission, of course), listen to a podcast, or ask for experiences on social media.

Of course, at some point in your book’s journey, you will probably want a more thorough read-through of your work, and this is where you can employ the services of beta readers and sensitivity (also known as diversity) readers. Beta readers usually read early drafts of a story, and they do it for free, or for swaps (you read their book, they read yours), and provide feedback on writing, characters, and story beats. In more recent times, beta readers have started providing feedback on more diverse aspects, such as the representation of mental illness and disability.

After beta readers come sensitivity readers. These people are professional readers who are paid for their work, so they are usually hired later in the project when the story is very polished. They specifically consult on diversity inclusion for identities they share (so if you’re depicting depression in your story, the sensitivity reader will be someone who has depression). They can catch anything that might have been missed by people who are less familiar with these issues, and I strongly urge anybody writing about experiences they do not share (or even if they do), to hire a sensitivity reader before sharing your story with the world.

Have you written about mental illness? What tips would you share with those looking to do the same?

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