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This blog was featured on 08/29/2018
Fiction: Friend or Foe to Mental Illness?
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Our essay today comes from Cathy Zane, author of Better Than This. As a psychotherapist and former nurse, Cathy has an interesting and unique perspective when it comes to how fiction can help to end the stigma against mental illness.

While we’ve come a long way from the days of asylums, lobotomies, and other archaic treatments of mental illness, much stigma still persists—especially in the media. Movies, television, news programs, and newspapers often depict sensationalized images of violent “pyschos” and stories of “hopeless cases”. Those suffering from mental illness are to be feared, shamed, and avoided.

Stigmatizing viewpoints, mis-information, and stereotypical depictions are also found in novels, to be sure. But the flip side is more often true. There are many works of fiction that strive to represent accurate, helpful, and hopeful portrayals that chip away at stigma and offer comfort and support for those who live with mental illness. Reading an experience in a book that resonates can help one feel less alone, less marginalized, less broken.

I have been an avid reader all my life and believe deeply in the power of fiction to help us navigate the complexity of our human existence. One of my favorite passages about the importance of novels is from A Novel Bookstore in which the author, Laurence Cossé, writes: 

My grandfather left me a great deal more – a passion for literature and something additional, fundamental: the conviction that literature is important . . . . Novels don’t contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched . . . . There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life. (pg. 150)

As an author and psychotherapist, I strive to write stories of healing and empowerment that challenge assumptions and labels and connect us to our shared humanity. It feels more helpful to me to consider mental health as a continuum rather than black and white, either/or, healthy or ill. Those identified as having “mental illness” are often much more brilliant, creative, strong, and resilient than their “healthy” peers.

I recently read Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and A.J. Finn’s The Woman In The Window. The protagonists in both these books have symptoms or behaviors that could be perceived and labeled as mental illness; but as each book unfolds, the origins of their struggles are revealed. As we come to understand what has happened to them, our empathy grows and our judgement that something is wrong with them diminishes. This is the power of the written word to create connection and foster understanding, acceptance, and support for all manner of human foibles and aptitudes.

Neil Gaiman expressed a similar sentiment in his April 2013 introduction to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “. . . fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

Both Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Woman In The Window are reportedly being made into films. My hope is that, much like the movie Silver Linings Playbook, the strength and resilience of the characters—and the gifts they have to offer others—shines through. There are many wonderful novels that offer kinder, destigmatizing, and normalizing views of mental health issues. It’s time for the rest of the media world to follow suit!

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