I’ve read, and edited, a lot of books that address the many issues associated with mental health. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it is so important that the writer gets the details right, and, unfortunately, many do get things wrong, sometimes very wrong.
According to the mental health charity Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. So fiction writers are absolutely right to include characters with these issues in their work. And self-publishing has meant that the self-help market has exploded, with many writing about their experiences and offering advice.
As someone with direct experience of these issues, I can’t stress enough how damaging it can be for authors and writers to get these things wrong. The wrong choice of word, the wrong representation, and you add to the enormous amount of stereotypes and misinformation out there, adding to the already difficult barriers and misconceptions that people have to struggle with every day. So how can you get it right? What should you do and what shouldn’t you do?
Interesting characters, characters that your reader can identify with, are so important when writing fiction. And as mental health issues are so common, it is right that these things should be included in fiction. So how do you do this successfully?
- Avoid the stereotypes
Remember that mental health is complex. It comes in many forms. People with OCD don’t all spend hours a day washing their hands, and if they do it isn’t always because they have a fear of germs. And you don’t have OCD if you like to keep your books in alphabetical order and you’re very tidy. People with depression aren’t just sad. You have a responsibility, as a writer, to explode those myths and to make your characters realistic.
- People with mental health issues are more than their issues
They have jobs. They have families. They have hobbies. They might be horrible people. They might be heroes. Their mental health might be a big part of them – but it isn’t everything they are. They still eat breakfast. They still fall in love. They still like music and going out and films and everything else that ‘normal’ people do. Make your character the centre of your story – and that means their whole character.
- Do your research
As with everything you write, get your facts straight. Research, read, ask. There’s a wealth of information out there and in this day and age there’s no excuse for getting it wrong. This goes for finding out how a character with a certain issue might behave all the way through to making sure the drugs/therapy/attitudes towards that person are consistent with the time in which your book is set.
As someone who has experience of dealing with mental health issues, I can attest to the benefits that can be gained from reading self-help books. It’s wonderful to know that others have the same issues and it can be inspirational and motivational to learn about the strategies they have used that have worked. That said, I have also read a lot of rubbish – opinions and misinformation bandied about as if it’s the gospel truth. This is not only patronising, it can also be downright dangerous.
- Be honest
Why are you writing this book? Do you have experience? Qualifications? Or do you just have an agenda, or a theory you think is relevant that you want to share? If the former, then go right ahead, but if it’s the latter then please find something else to write about. I read a book recently that explained that the best way to get over depression was to have a positive mindset. Wow. I’m sure all those people who battle depression daily really wish they’d thought of that. To write so flippantly about something as complex as depression is not only patronising, it is irresponsible in the extreme. To write about depression, or anxiety, or OCD, or anything else, you need to understand the issue thoroughly.
- Again, do your research
It’s absolutely vital that you know and understand your subject. You wouldn’t write a book on coping with any other type of illness unless you had been through it yourself, had helped someone through, or if you actually had qualifications and experience in the field. Writing about mental health for the non-fiction market is no different.
- Be aware of your responsibilities
Imagine you are struggling with depression. You buy a self-help book. And you’re told it’s just down to you – you just need to be positive. Imagine the effect that can have on someone. Your words matter. Be careful how you use them.
There are some amazing books about mental health out there, both fiction and non-fiction. If you want to research mental health, or if you have mental health issues yourself, then I wholeheartedly recommend the following to begin with:
And there’s plenty of help and advice here too: