The discourse surrounding mental health has shifted in recent years thanks to the efforts of researchers, public figures, and organizations to destigmatize mental illness. Targeted studies, support groups, and online publications continue to emerge, giving people more opportunities to share their experiences and seek help.
These platforms play a crucial role in expanding the mental health dialogue, reminding those struggling that they do not have to suffer alone. As someone recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder after enduring 16 years of confusion and darkness, this growing push for awareness has acted as a balm as I learn to better navigate my condition.
In the almost two decades leading up to my diagnosis, I often turned to fantasy novels, both to escape my tumultuous emotions and make sense of the pain and despair I experienced. Hours drifted by in the blink of an eye as I devoured page after page.
As I’ve grown older and more informed about my mental health, my hunger for fantasy novels has faded. My refuge suddenly felt cold and empty, the struggles of the protagonists somehow far off and untouchable. I could not see myself in them.
Though mental health issues have taken a more prominent place in the public eye, the topic remains under-represented in novels, especially the fantasy and science fiction genres. Where are the characters with mental disorders? And why does their absence matter?
Mental illness in fiction: why it matters
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 19.1% (47.6 million) of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018. Mental disorders touched the lives of 1 in 5 U.S. adults across all demographics, with instances more prevalent among the LGBTQ+ community. Despite efforts to increase awareness, suicide remains the second leading cause of death among people aged 10–34.
With these heartbreaking statistics in mind, there are two categories of people who need to see characters with mental disorders in the books they read: those who have mental illnesses and those who do not.
Those in the first group, like myself, need representation to feel less alone. Mental disorders of all types cultivate a sense of isolation, a deep-rooted pain that leads to crippling episodes and even suicide.
Seeing our own struggles play out in other settings, even through fictional characters, helps us bridge the disconnect and reflect on our own experiences. When we recognize ourselves in other people, it can be cathartic and even painful; but, as long as the author handles the portrayal with care, it’s of great value.
The people who belong to the second group need these types of stories to understand what it’s like to live with mental illness. Characters with mental disorders give them a frame of reference to draw upon, one otherwise absent and unreachable in their day-to-day lives. This exposure can foster empathy, a crucial component for combating ignorance, misunderstanding, and insensitivity.
Representation is especially useful for individuals who have friends or loved ones struggling with mental disorders. While the internet offers a wealth of material on mental health, observing how mental illness affects a character and observing their innermost thoughts can provide a clarity both deeper and easier to access.
Mental illness in fiction: common pitfalls
While depictions of mental illness in fiction can act as healing agents, they also have the potential to cause greater harm.
Similar to portraying other ethnicities, one-dimensional or poorly researched characters with mental health issues can reinforce hurtful stereotypes and spread misinformation. Film and television have earned a fair amount of notoriety for their generalization and narrow depiction of individuals with different disorders. “OCD” serves as a catch-all term for those attentive to details while “bipolar” describes someone who frequently changes their mind.
If a plot includes a character struggling with a mental disorder, the writer often paints them as the villain, using their “insanity” to explain their evil acts or aggression. You’ll encounter lots of stories about serial killers with disassociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder) who commit murders while in the thrall of an alter ego. Similarly, schizophrenics are relegated to a world where the voices in their head drive them to kill other people, often those closest to them.
These types of narratives associate mental health issues with violence, when, in reality, only 3%–5% of violent acts stem from individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to become a victim of a violent crime than the rest of the population. This includes people with disassociative identity disorder, where aggression is a rare exception.
Another common issue in fiction involves portraying mentally ill characters only at their low points, or as incapable of functioning in society. How often have you seen a depressed character sitting in a dark room staring at the wall? Or a mother suffering from postpartum depression surrounded by dirty clothes with a baby crying nearby?
Once again, popular conception and the real world are at odds here. People with mental illnesses are more than capable of holding down jobs, pursuing goals, and seeing to the needs of their families, especially when supported by a proper treatment regimen. Mental disorders also do not make up the whole of our personalities and identities.
Finally, there is no “one size fits all” for mental illness. Disorders manifest in a variety of ways and affect people differently. People with severe anxiety can leave the house and mothers with postpartum depression can stay on top of chores while seeing to their baby’s needs. Even though I’m bipolar and spend most of my time in a down cycle, I can still smile, laugh, and socialize.
Mental illness in fiction: strategies for success
Research is the key to avoiding inaccurate and harmful portrayals of mental illness.
Many people possess only a homogenized concept of mental disorders pieced together from the media they’ve consumed. Often, they treat the different conditions and terminology as interchangeable. Or they take their surface level impressions and run with it. If you plan to give your character a specific diagnosis, make sure you dig deep before writing a single word.
When writing about a character who has a mental illness, don’t center the story, or their existence, on the disorder. It’s important for people in both camps to see them completing everyday tasks, living as a functional part of society. The disorder may color their choices and reactions and even alter the way they approach problem-solving but the problem still gets solved. Even if that problem involves hunting down a legendary artifact or defeating a legion of undead.
Also remember mental health issues range beyond trauma. Writers have a fondness for using sexual abuse or dead parents to motivate their characters and add meat to their backstories. While trauma is an important topic to explore, these themes have become commonplace and often serve as little more than lazy plot devices.
If you’re writing in a historical or fantasy setting where modern terms will not fit, you can still weave your character’s mental illness into their actions, thoughts, and reactions. Just be careful about feeding homogenized misconceptions. Stick to a specific disorder rather than haphazardly plucking symptoms and tendencies from different illnesses to suit your needs. You might even consider identifying the modern equivalent of the character’s disorder for your readers in an introduction.
Writing about characters with mental disorders may seem off-putting for authors who do not live with mental illness but this representation is essential. We need diversity in our stories to learn, both about ourselves and other people, and unpack complex issues.
Fiction, whether it takes the form of books, film, or television, shapes the way we view and understand one another. As novelists, we have a unique opportunity to confront the stigma of mental illness, change the dialogue, and help those readers suffering in silence feel connected and seen.