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This blog was featured on 01/02/2019
Writing About Mental Health Issues Without Clichés
Written by
She Writes
January 2019
Written by
She Writes
January 2019

As conversation around mental illness becomes more mainstream so does the inclusion of characters suffering from mental health disorders. Although it may seem like writing about mental illness is an easy way to add interest to your story, there are a few things to consider before diving in. If you’re debating whether or not you want to write about such an important topic in your own work, these are our best suggestions for writing about mental health issues without clichés.

An Accurate Representation

For centuries, people learned about mental illness through the fiction they were reading—with less advanced technology and research, these views on mental health weren’t always accurate. Because of this misrepresentation, it is vital to write mental illness in a way that is truthful and accurately represents the disease.

  • Research, research, research: Unlike the early days of fiction writing, we now have access to thousands of articles and research about any mental illness you could think to write about. Don’t write about any aspect of the disease you don’t completely understand and take your time getting the details right.
  • Be aware of the picture you’re painting. Although it has become so easy to learn the depths of mental illness, a large portion of your audience will walk away with new knowledge about the illness you’re portraying—make sure it’s an accurate representation.
  • Your readers could have the mental illness you’re writing about. If you choose to write about mental illness, it’s important to note that someone with the illness could read your work. Although writing about this subject matter may seem like the best thing for your story, you don’t want to offend anyone. If possible, have conversations with someone who has suffered in the area you are describing. This will help avoid falling into common stereotypes.

Mental Illness and Insanity Aren't the Same

How many times have you read a book that revolves around a villain who is evil due to his mental instability?

Using mental illness to explain away a character’s evil tendencies is not a road you want to wander down. Even worse, these “evil” characters often incorrectly depict mental illness, making it appear to be much more fantastical or otherworldly. 

Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia do not make a villain (or a superhero for that matter). Be careful about associating scary sounding illness with scary people. The two don't necessarily go hand in hand. 

If your villain must have a particular disorder use aspects of the disease to further their character and then provide context within backstory as to why the disorder took them down such a dark path (Did it go untreated? Did they suffer bullying and abuse because of his or her disorder? Did their loved ones deny or shame the existence of the illness?) .

Look to past traumas, recent heartbreak or a sudden devastating tragedy to explain their chosen path and then add small details of the personality disorder you have researched. Walking through a villain’s manic episode or depressed demeanor will add detail and depth without making it seem like your character is purely bad because of something he or she has no control over.

Stay Up-to-Date

Now that it’s 2019, people are more educated than ever about mental illness and readers will have a hard time sympathizing with an author that writes about it incorrectly. So what does this mean for authors who want to write about these complicated diseases? Keep the following in mind to avoid being a cliché—or offending anyone—while writing:

  • As you write your characters and the aspects of their mental illness, make sure you are keeping up with any new developments in regard to that illness throughout the writing process of the book—there’s no longer any excuse to write about mental illness poorly with the help of the internet.
  • Use mental illness to deepen your characters, not define them. There’s more to a human being than their illness, remember this when writing and use the characteristics of the disorder to deepen your character(s).
  • Don’t play into stereotypes.
  • Only write about mental illness if it is relevant to the situation—don’t use it if you’re only looking to write about a topic that seems popular or trendy.

Look to recent examples on Netflix for good and bad uses of mental illness. In the case of the show Atypical, we have an irresistibile character on the autism spectrum. He is an unlikely hero of his own story and yet we still see the pain of what he endures. Bird Box on the other hand uses mental illness as a prop. With no explanation or sympathy, the movie implies that the entire world's population of mentally ill people are now villainous in their dedication to the killer entity that has overtaken all of humanity. 

With these two extreme examples you can see how including mental illness is a big responsibility and one no author should take lightly.

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  • Be careful not to demonize childhood trauma either. I learned in writing my current book about domestic violence that abusive partners are not victims of childhood abuse but they are eager to use it as an excuse.