Writing Mental Health: What to Avoid

Nowadays, almost everyone has a Facebook. Even my mother, the woman who has held a staunch anti-social media stance for the last decade (or more) is now on Facebook. As such, more than likely, you’ve seen the banners and images floating around that often say things to the tune of,

“I’m neurodivergent and that’s okay.”

“I have thought about or tried to commit suicide. You are not alone,” or

“This user suffers from bipolar depression. End the stigma.”

This is a fantastic change over how we, as Americans, used to see and react to mental illnesses. After countless celebrity “outings” and death after death reported on the news, it is refreshing to see that times and attitudes are beginning to change.

But is that enough?

There’s no denying that mental illness is something we don’t talk about. In many ways, the attitudes around it feel a lot like the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies that used to be present in the military. It’s an unspoken rule, and because of that, misinformation flourishes. Believe it or not, mental illness is not something that should stay in the dark. It is something that should be talked about because, though no one wants to have one, it is “normal” for millions of people.

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Representation matters. It’s important to be able to see people in the media that you can connect with. America being the great melting pot that it is and always has been, this means there is a kind of social responsibility to make sure that there is representation of an incredibly diverse cast of characters. That’s difficult with mental illness, however, because it can be surprisingly easy to fall into a few terrible potholes.

 

Don’t Engage in “Inspiration Porn”

Is that a phrase you’ve seen before? Is it a phrase that makes you feel uncomfortable? It should.

When stories bounce around of people who have severe obstacles in their way and still manage to succeed, many people find it easy to say they are inspirational or that their stories mean so much to the listener. While in some cases this may be okay if the intent is to inspire, the line between acceptable and misuse is very thin.

More than likely, the source of “inspiration” is a person who really, truly just wants to get groceries in peace, not converse about the ups and downs of life with every stranger on the street.

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As a person who has spent a portion of my life in a wheelchair, I can assure you that it is inappropriate to approach me in public and tell me that my going about my business is “inspirational.” Firstly, I’m just trying to live my life, and secondly, my existence is not about you. This is absolutely applicable to mental illness as well. If you write a character with severe depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, don’t paint them as an inspiration. Remember that you would not give a wheelchair-bound character only traits and events relating to their chair, so it’s not okay to focus on the mental illness above all else either. It will definitely have an impact on their personal story, but it is not the whole of their story.

 

Ignore Cliches

Mental illness is rife with stereotypes, myths, and misinformation. We only have to look to the asylums of the 19th and 20th centuries to see that.

Writing stereotypes isn’t just inaccurate, it’s damaging in the long term. There is a stigma surrounding mental illness that plays a major part in when, or if, people reach out for help. By perpetuating these stereotypes, the stigma continues.

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Writing cliches also presents a problem with true representation. For instance, when post traumatic stress disorder is discussed, more than likely the first image to come to mind is that of the world-weary soldier coming home from war. That’s valid. Many veterans suffer from PTSD. However, to assume it’s only present in vets is inaccurate. Other characters can show signs of PTSD. For instance, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games showed classic symptoms in how withdrawn she became and her hyper-vigilance. Harry Potter also showed symptoms, especially in book 5 when he had recurrent nightmares of watching Cedric Diggory die and his demeanor changed significantly. While, yes, emotional uproar is typical of the teen years, that level of volatile anger is usually something more.

Real faces can vary significantly. The child who was lost in the woods for a few days may have PTSD. The comedian may have depression. The star of the theatre department may have severe social anxiety.

 

Don’t Expect Other People to Educate You

Research is a tool that writers should absolutely be proficient in. Knowing where to look and how will get you further than almost anything else. That said, no one has any responsibility to educate you.

Imagine how tiresome it would be if every time you entered a restaurant or store, you were told you had to leave. You then had to cite laws that stated your right to stay. If they press, you have to produce more information, answer questions, and face interrogation. A trip that could have been five minutes becomes fifteen, and your mood is ruined.

That’s often the reality of people with service animals.

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He may be tiny, but he is a service dog.One that happens to love Ben and Jerry’s.

How is that relevant? It’s not the handler’s responsibility to educate businesses about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Often the questions they are asked are incredibly invasive, and the situation tends to start off tense anyway from being asked to leave. If you want to write a character with a mental illness and happen to have someone in your life who lives with something similar, exercise judgement about asking for their input. They’re going to experience some of the same feelings as a handler with a service dog. “Why are you asking this? Do I need to defend myself? Am I safe?”

If they are willing to talk about things with you, that is fantastic. You will have found a first degree resource, someone who can help you understand deeper complexities than a textbook could hope to do. If they are uncomfortable with opening up that far, do not press it. They do not have an obligation to let you know that much about their lives, and you must respect that. Their lives are not your resource unless they consent to that.

I believe wholeheartedly it is important to show a variety of characters in every story. It serves to show that a wide variety of people can all be “normal” in their own ways. What is “normal” for me is “normal” for no one else, and that is how it should be.

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