mental health

Writing About Mental Health #mentalhealth #amwriting

 

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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?

250px-Mental_Disorder_Silhouette

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Fiction

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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Non-fiction

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

Jenny Lawson:

Furiously Happy

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

You Are Here

David Adam:

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

Joanne Limburg:

The Woman Who Thought Too Much

And there’s plenty of help and advice here too:

Mind

OCD UK

Young Minds

Beat

Bipolar UK

 

 

‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy’ by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

Option B

Amazon.co.uk   Amazon.com

From Facebook’s COO and Wharton’s top-rated professor, the #1 New York Times best-selling authors of Lean In and Originals: a powerful, inspiring, and practical book about building resilience and moving forward after life’s inevitable setbacks.

After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. “I was in ‘the void,’” she writes, “a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.” Her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton, told her there are concrete steps people can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build.

Option B combines Sheryl’s personal insights with Adam’s eye-opening research on finding strength in the face of adversity. Beginning with the gut-wrenching moment when she finds her husband, Dave Goldberg, collapsed on a gym floor, Sheryl opens up her heart—and her journal—to describe the acute grief and isolation she felt in the wake of his death. But Option B goes beyond Sheryl’s loss to explore how a broad range of people have overcome hardships including illness, job loss, sexual assault, natural disasters, and the violence of war. Their stories reveal the capacity of the human spirit to persevere . . . and to rediscover joy.

Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. Even after the most devastating events, it is possible to grow by finding deeper meaning and gaining greater appreciation in our lives. Option B illuminates how to help others in crisis, develop compassion for ourselves, raise strong children, and create resilient families, communities, and workplaces. Many of these lessons can be applied to everyday struggles, allowing us to brave whatever lies ahead. Two weeks after losing her husband, Sheryl was preparing for a father-child activity. “I want Dave,” she cried. Her friend replied, “Option A is not available,” and then promised to help her make the most of Option B.

We all live some form of Option B. This book will help us all make the most of it.

I don’t read ‘self-help’ books very often, to be honest. But I’d read about the death of Dave Goldberg and knew about Sheryl Sandberg, so I was interested to read this.

I was initially sceptical though. Sandberg is a privileged woman; she has wealth, and opportunity, and surely her experience would be far removed from that of normal, ordinary people? I was worried that the book might be one of those that preached from a position of power and privilege, telling ordinary women how to cope, when the author has no idea at all of the everyday struggles that those women (and men) face every day. Add grief and loss to that, and could Sandberg really understand? (Check out Ivanka Trump’s highly insulting, ridiculous and just plain weird ‘Women Who Work – Rewriting the Rules for Success’ and marvel at the complete ignorance of normality).

But Sandberg is fully aware of her privilege. She knows that she is lucky and she understands that other women (I say women because it is still women who are more vulnerable, at least financially, after the death of a partner) will have more to face than she did after a loss like this. And this self-awareness and acknowledgement really made me warm to her. I also couldn’t help but be affected by the sheer honesty and rawness of her grief. I lost my mum before I was forty. I know that isn’t comparable to the loss of a husband. But grief is something we feel a little bit ashamed of at times; we don’t like to let it show, mainly, I think, because we’re worried it will make other people uncomfortable. So to read an honest account of an intelligent, secure and focussed woman falling to pieces through grief was, perhaps selfishly, rather comforting. Her description of her husband’s funeral was heart-breaking. And her emotions are real – she’s a real person, with real feelings.

I liked her, and I respected and admired the way she cared for her children and acknowledged their pain. So I felt far more open to hearing what else she had to say.

I know that Sandberg’s wealth will be a sticking point for many. I know that she can afford childcare, and she doesn’t have to worry about a mortgage. And she has a supportive family and a supportive boss – things that lots of other people don’t have. But that doesn’t mean that some aspects of this book can’t be helpful to more ‘normal’ people. As already mentioned, just reading someone else’s account of grief can help when you have suffered a loss – acknowledging that your feelings are normal and understandable and understood can be a great help. And reading about other people who have suffered horrific things but who have managed to build useful and fulfilling lives is extremely inspirational. And there is advice here that doesn’t hinge on having money – writing a journal, for example, and looking for positive things in even the bleakest of times is helpful for anyone.

There were a few places where things got a bit spiritual, which didn’t do it for me, but these were few and far between. What I really liked were the anecdotes about Sheryl’s own experiences and how she helped herself and her children not only to grieve, but to begin to move on, without forgetting their father – simple things like beginning new family routines and traditions while not forgetting the old ones, for example.

It’s well written too, and thoroughly researched. Definitely worth reading, and recommended for anyone going through a hard time and trying to cope, whether through a death, redundancy, anxiety and depression – there are things here that can help.

4 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy

‘The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters’ by Emily Esfahani Smith #TuesdayBookBlog #bookreview

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Amazon.co.uk   Amazon.com

There is a myth in our culture that to find meaning you have to travel to a distant monastery or wade through dusty volumes to figure out life’s great secret. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us: right here, right now. Drawing on the latest research in positive psychology; on insights from George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, the Buddha and other great minds, Emily Esfahani Smith identifies four pillars upon which meaning rests: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling and Transcendence. 

She also explores how we can begin to build a culture of meaning into our families, our workplaces and our communities.

Inspiring and full of contemporary examples, The Power of Meaning will strike a profound chord in anyone seeking a richer, more satisfying life.

I have to admit that I’m not really a great fan of the whole idea of ‘self-help’, mainly because I feel it over-simplifies complex mental health issues and trivialises them. However, I was intrigued by the premise of this book.

It is very well-written and there is a great deal of very interesting stuff here. The idea of a life that means something being far more important that a fruitless search for happiness did strike a chord with me. I found the opening chapters, with the inclusion of ideas from many psychologists, philosophers, and thinkers the most interesting and though-provoking part of the book.

The idea here is that it is important to find meaning in whatever you do, and that connections to others are vital to living a life that means something. The author backs up this theory with lots of research and references and also with anecdotal evidence.

The book lost it for me though when it went on to discuss the four pillars central to a life of meaning, and to look at real-life examples. For me, the references to religion, while not the central theme here, left me cold, and I did feel some of the accounts were rather biased and one-sided. It was a little simplistic.

This book was very well researched and referenced, and the premise is a strong one – being part of a community and feeling that you matter, and connections with others certainly are good for mental health and well-being and these ideas will help people. However, living with mental health issues is much more complex than this.

So this didn’t work for me. I found some of it very interesting, and the idea of a meaningful life is one that does resonate, but, on the whole, this wasn’t for me.

three stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a copy for review.