Do you have resources for writing about mental illness?
Writing About Mental Illness
This is such a broad topic, and there’s really no way to answer the anon’s question specifically since they didn’t say which mental illness/es they’re considering writing about, so I’m going to share my own advice on this topic and how to research the specific illness you want to use.
Many of the things I’m about to say have been said by many other writing blogs, but it’s worth repeating if it will reach even more people who are planning to write about mental illness.
1) Mental Illness is an illness; not a personality trait.
One mistake many writers make when incorporating mental illness into their character’s persona is forgetting that it’s an illness. Illnesses need treatment, whether it’s therapy or medication. Left untreated, sufferers may struggle to even function, and some may even turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self medication. Mental illness is not something that only pops up during times of stress - it’s unpredictable, and it can be constant. So much so that people begin associating the individual with their disorder, forgetting that there is a real person underneath with their own unique traits, interests, quirks, and habits.
Depending who you speak to, you may hear different things, but I’m of the viewpoint that when we speak of disorder, we say that someone has the disorder, rather than someone is the disorder. It’s the difference between saying someone is schizophrenic and someone has schizophrenia.
Because we’re dealing with illness, you can’t forget about the treatment aspect of any story arc you attempt to explore. That’s one component I think writers often neglect, in favor of having a character talk through their troubles with a friend one time, go through a climactic event, and then have some kind of epiphany that somehow cures their illness. Try not to do this.
When writing any mental illness, tell the whole journey. Don’t just attach it to a character’s personality in an effort to enhance it.
2) Decide if mental illness is what you’re really attempting to do.
Jumping off my last point, be sure you know the difference between symptoms and traits. I think it often happens that writers read about an illness, and they find the symptoms interesting as character traits, so they decide to write about the illness. But wait: that may not be necessary.
Characters that exhibit signs of paranoia don’t need to have schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder. Hell, I’m paranoid. I have irrational fears that are likely never to happen, but that doesn’t automatically mean I have a mental illness. Because it doesn’t affect my ability to function. My paranoia bothers me; it doesn’t hinder me. So before you decide you need to write someone with a disorder, consider whether you’re really just trying to write someone who is anxious, or paranoid, or who panics excessively in stressful situations.
3) Don’t be scared.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from writing about mental illness. But speaking as someone who’s close to someone with a “trendy” disorder, I want people to write about it for a good reason, and with good intentions. I don’t want it tacked on to accessorize characters. If you believe the character’s mental illness is significant to your plot (its purpose cannot be replaced with anything else), or you feel you have a story to tell about this character’s struggle, then go for it. If your heart’s in the right place, and you do the necessary leg work, most people with personal background/experience will appreciate your attempt and give you constructive criticism that can help you improve it.
4) Do your research.
Research is more than just WebMD. When we research historical periods, we want more than just facts and timelines - we want to know about the way people lived. Same thing: you want more than just symptoms, prognosis, typical treatments, ect. You want to know how people actually live with the disorder.
How do you learn about this? Well, you talk to people who either have it or know someone who have it. If this isn’t possible, you watch documentaries/interviews. In fact, if you Google the disorder, and select the video tab, you can probably find some decent videos on YouTube to help you get started. I would also encourage you to read memoirs or guidance books, written with the intention to help people cope with the disorder.