Writing about Mental Health Issues

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Check out the San Diego Writer’s Festival, April 13, 2019

Mentally ill characters stir excitement. Tight, vivid portrayals of characters struggling with mental illness foster empathy. The major depression of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, the bi-polar suffering of Patrick Peoples in The Silver Linings Playbook, and the anxiety ridden Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, reveal the common human drama of suffering. These books connect with readers because:

  • They portray the symptoms of mental illness honestly.
  • The characters appear as fully fleshed-out individuals not stereotypical misfits.
  • They invite readers to empathize by employing beautiful, poetic language, humor, and sensitivity.

These characters can inspire and uplift us. If the character endures, we feel that we can too. When a writer connects we feel encouraged to accept the difficult parts of ourselves and the people we know.

Non-Fiction That Connects

           Non-fiction writers of self-help like myself, seek to connect with those struggling with mental health issues, by offering solutions. Like the fiction writer, connection comes from showing the common human struggle, the suffering. One universal human truth is that we all feel pain. When you write to connect, it helps to pay attention to that pain. Think about the emotions your reader might feel looking at a list of symptoms, or the results of a quiz. Offer them solutions based on evidence. Respect your readers intelligence. Just because someone suffers from a mental illness doesn’t mean they are stupid. In fact some of the most intellectually gifted among us suffer from some form of mental illness. In a 40 year study of creative people, writers were more than twice as likely to suffer from suicidal depression.

Bi-polar disorder gifts writers with a flood of creative ideas generating superior inventiveness and productivity. Yet the disorder brings with it an avalanche of pain requiring treatment to prevent self-destructive behavior. All of us can count among our favorite authors, those who took their own life. The suffering is real. Strive to write with care and do no harm. British mystery writer, Margaret Chittenden quipped,  “Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.” It might help to consider that any one of us might appear mad to someone watching us without understanding.

Avoid Stigma

           Avoid language that stigmatizes. Stigma generates shame, and adds to the damaging social isolation of sufferers. It helps to write about mental illness as you would a physical illness. C.S. Lewis, author of numerous books including The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote “The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: It is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken”.” We don’t call someone “cancerous” if they have cancer. A person suffers from bi-polar disorder, they are not defined as “a bi-polar.” We might write that someone “committed suicide” as if they committed a crime. Instead say,  “he took his own life,” or “she died by self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Everyone suffers, and those who meet diagnostic criteria suffer more. Yet we are all more than the sum of our symptoms. So write respectfully, and you will connect with the reader. Good examples of non-fiction books that connect respectfully include:

  • The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Neurologist Oliver Sachs. He writes with compassion about rare disorders and broadens our view of the fascinating human mind.
  • An Unquiet Mind, by clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. This memoir of her struggle with bi-polar disorder, includes accurate medical information to help readers.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson. The irreverent tone of this book connects with those tired of self-help books urging readers to be positive. It shares a truth that there is no pain-free life. Instead, it invites readers to choose what they value, and what provides meaning.

The theme of the San Diego Writers Festival this year is connection. When you write about mental illness accurately, with respectful language, humor and compassion, your readers will connect with you. You might even throw someone a much needed lifeline.