Mental illness in characters: Looking after your readers4 min read

by May 26, 2017Writing0 comments

I have serious issues with 13 Reasons Why.  As someone who is still (nearly a decade on) dealing with complex feelings of guilt around the suicide attempt of a close friend, seeing suicide portrayed as pretty much revenge is devastating.  To have a whole series based on a suicide, with no mention of mental illness, just plain shocks me. The vast majority of suicides are committed by those suffering greatly from a mental illness, such as depression.  Kindness and social interaction won’t help the majority of cases (as 13 Reasons Why seems to suggest); the intervention needs to be professional.

Sensitive and considered portrayal of mental illness in a character will always be very difficult.  But getting it right, and seeing sufferers respond positively to your presentation of their illness, is rewarding.

If you choose to write a character with a mental illness then one excellent resource is the MIND website.  As the biggest mental health charity in the UK, MIND’s website covers how to support the individual and has blogs from people sharing their experiences of living with an illness.  It also has practical tips on coping mechanisms and everyday living; something your character might need while living through your plot.

Representation really does matter.  If a reader recognises what they are going through in a character then this is important.  If they then see times when that character handles a situation well, and times when they don’t react well, this can help them learn not beat themselves up.  No one is perfect, and there is no perfect way to handle something so complex.

Celebrity stints in rehab are often treated by the tabloid press as luxury holidays minus the alcohol.  Getting clean from an addition is far from pretty.  Make sure if your character has an addiction you steer clear from the trap of making it seem glamorous.  But on the flip side, mental illness does not make your character a victim.  Studies suggest 1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental illness in any year.  There is no sequence of childhood or adult traumas that indicates who will suffer from mental illness and who will not.  As with physical illness, mental illness does not discriminate.  It can strike anyone, not just those who have suffered in other ways.

When you write for an audience I often feel like there should be a duty of care.  If you choose to write about mental health, you enter into a position where people may listen to what you say.  If people see your characters coming off their meds, with no ramifications, what message are you giving?

There is still a stigma to mental health, so if you are writing a character with an illness then hopefully you can positively contribute to ending that stigma.  So please remember Uncle Ben’s words, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”

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