How to Write About a Character with Mental Health Issues

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Some of you might not like this topic. Some of you clicked because you’re curious about my angle. If you’re worried I’m going to say something offensive, out of line or flat-out wrong, have a little faith. Trust me. Give this post a chance.

I had the pleasure of working with NoStigmas, a nonprofit bound and determined to peel mental illness stigma off the map, for six months as a social media volunteer. And no, they haven’t asked me to mention them here. The most valuable thing I learned as I wrote and rewrote posts for the organization was how to talk about mental health, both pleasing those affected and intriguing those far too ignorant for their own good.

Ignorance, remember, is not stupidity. That’s the point. The only way to eradicate a stigma is to teach people why it’s wrong, because they just don’t know any better.

For some reason, “mental illness” (mental health issues being the preferred phrase) is a popular issue to cover in most genres of fiction. That’s because it’s a much more prominent issue than we’re often willing to realize. What the issue needs is an honest viewpoint: an unexaggerated portrayal of normal people, living normal lives, living with mental health issues, and doing just fine for the most part.

If you have characters in mind you’re certain you want to develop with mental health issues as a vital characteristic (not a character flaw, please), go ahead. There’s no shame in that. As long as you follow these important guidelines when doing so.

Have a Good Reason 

If you want mental health to be a topic of importance in your story, for the sake of “shedding light on a misunderstood issue,” don’t bother. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking your ground-breaking novel about depression—all about depression—will change the world.

So what’s a “good” reason to talk about mental health issues in a story? To make the point that it’s no longer an issue we need to dangle in front of readers’ faces. (Mind you, organizations like NoStigmas have this privilege; leave it to the experts.)

The best thing you can do is include a relevant character, or multiple, who may happen to live with mental health issues—but the story keeps going. The message we should aim to get across, as writers, is that “mental illness” is just a part of life. Someone can go about their day, go on an adventure, help a friend solve a problem. They’re not ruined. They’re nothing like Hollywood seems to think they are. They are people. 

Do Your Research

No, this does not mean Google a few famous people and go on your way. To write about mental health, you need to understand it. Play the role of a journalist, if you aren’t one already. Go to organizations’ websites and social media pages, like NoStigmas, and see what real people who deal with these issues daily have to say about it.

Before you can create authentic, relatable characters to casually bring these issues to your readers’ attention, you have to know how that character feels, and how they tend to act in response. What do they really struggle with? How does that shape who they are as a person?

Be Daring, but Considerate

It’s okay to want to portray a character dealing with mental health issues. Some writers don’t even want to try. If you spend enough time on your research and purpose for including that character, you have much more of a foundation to work with. It’s more probable to take risks and highlight issues without forcing them down your readers’ throats.

While you can be “daring,” you also have to be considerate of your potential audiences. Watch your language. Be honest, but gentle. Portray mental health issues as they are, not as society alone perceives them to be. Take a neutral stance. Don’t say mental health issues are “good” or “bad.” Be encouraging. Be smart.

We posted a #WriterProblem on Facebook earlier this morning, and wanted to acknowledge it in case it bothered you, especially after this post.

“It’s the voices in my head” was not meant to be offensive. If you’re a writer, you know characters really do tend to have their own voices. It’s just wordplay.

One final tip for writers: you won’t ever be able to please everyone no matter how careful you are. There will always be someone who claims offense after something you’ve written. You didn’t do it on purpose (I hope). Shake it off.

Writing about “iffy” topics like mental health issues, over time, makes them less so. But we can’t spend all our time putting the issue in the spotlight, either. I wrote this post because, some days, you just have to write about what’s on your mind.

So if you regularly read these posts, thank you for sticking with me. Thank you for letting me put a literary spin on important, real-life things. Thank you, really, for supporting me and my brain and all the brain crack (thanks Hank Green) that results in posts like this.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

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