Mental Health in Writing: The Do’s and Don’ts

     Mental health is one of those topics people don’t like to talk about. There’s always been a stigma in media about it. I don’t have a definitive reason for why this is, but I can speculate that it has to do with weakness being compared to mental health.

     When a person is mentally ill, he or she is vulnerable just as a physical illness would make a person. So why are people able to talk about physical illnesses so easily and not mental illness? A mental illness is extremely personal. That isn’t to say physical illnesses aren’t either, but many times mental illnesses touch upon personal, sensitive topics. And because they’re so personal, they’re not always understandable to others.

     This misunderstanding has caused a lot of misconceptions over the years. It’s bred and nurtured a stigmatism in our society that isn’t going to go away in a couple of years. Media outlets of all kinds (social media, films, games, books, etc.) need to move away from the old-fashioned mindsets that social media is like the plague. I can’t speak to any other media outlet other than writing, so I constructed a list of dos and don’ts that writers will hopefully find helpful in combatting the stigmatism of mental health in their stories.


     Show how other people react and contribute. Mental health is commonly shown to be an individualistic, inherent problem. That is not always the case. While mental illness can be more common in some families than others, many external problems also influence a person’s mental health.

     Small comments from other people can pile overtime to become a burden on a person. The more subtly a writer incorporates mental illness into his or her writing, the more realistic it becomes. Those small comments from people can mean a lot to a character regardless of whether it was a passing observation or not.

     However, writers need to be careful that they avoid the idea that anything can trigger a mentally ill person in one go. Mental illness doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger. It’s a slow and steady buildup. It’s a person’s own demons that overtime tortures a character.

     Of course, not all interactions are bad. Creating a support system of outside people can help a person recover, and I think this support system is often forgotten about in favor of creating a pity factor. That brings me to my next point.


     Create a traumatic incident for the sake of creating a mentally ill character. Too many times I’ve seen this happen in media. Something traumatic happens to a character and their mental illness becomes the focal point of their entire character. Not only is this bad writing in general, but it also perpetuates the idea that a person is defined by the illness / problem they have which is a horrendous way of thinking.

     This is also the cheap way of having readers sympathize for a writer’s characters. People feel pity when a person is facing mental illness, but this is a problem too for stigmatism. Writers are basically telling readers, “Hey, this person has a problem. Feel bad for them.” This doesn’t give a writer’s character the respect he or she deserves, and goes on to make the character seem weak. Instead, the next point is what writers should do.


     Make the mental illness part of the character and their arc. Mental illness is part of a person just like how a physical illness is. However, it doesn’t have to have a spotlight on it to be present. Most of the time, mental illness takes a back seat in a person’s personality. In fact, people usually try to hide the fact that they have a mental illness for fear of stigmatization.

     It is far more effective to make it part of subtle thoughts or in how a character acts. For example, thoughts of comparison to another person or consistently seeing the negative in a situation instead of a positive. In spite of this, even when writers do manage to get this part right, there’s one thing that irks me more than anything else. 


     Have a character “get over it.” Mental illness does not work like that! Nobody can just “get over something” in a few seconds. Nobody is ever mentally ill for only a few days. It absolutely gets on my nerves when I see a character who has been suffering for a long time, suddenly be better from one talk or argument. That can forward a person’s recover, yes, but it never “fixes” the problem just like that. 


     Find realistic ways to help your character recover. I covered support systems in a previous Do, but find way to help a character recover. I would like to note that recover doesn’t mean cure, and your characters don’t have to recover. That could be the tragedy of the character. However, most of the time if a main character has a mental illness, readers would like to see the character push forward. There’s a dangerous misconception that mental illness can be cured, and that’s not the case. A person can learn to cope through therapy, medicine, and self-care, but there’s not a way a person can just “get rid of it.” 

    There is no set key to how a person can recover from a mental illness, especially in fantastical worlds where therapy may not be an option. It’s all about finding a natural way to help a character ease themselves forward. I would like to warn writers against using magic or potions (things of that nature) to “cure” mental illness. It creates the stigma that if a person takes the right kind of medicine, it’ll go away and medicine doesn’t do that. 

     That pretty much wraps up my thoughts on mental illness. I put down some links below to some websites with I think some pretty great advice. I hope this list helps! 


On Writing Mentally Ill & Insane Characters

Five Things a Writer  Needs to Know About a Character with a Mental Illness

Mental Illness in Fiction: Getting It Right

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