Mental Health in Literature: a Conversation

I’ve noticed a trend in fiction when mental health is portrayed: it’s either portrayed completely inaccurately or vilified. I can’t tell you the number of thrillers that I’ve read that describe the villain as “crazy,” “psychotic,” “schizophrenic,” or “bipolar,” as though having a mental illness automatically makes a person an amoral killer. Often, it’s quite obvious that the author has chosen a mental illness simply to avoid having to give a reason for a person’s actions. It made me think: do writers have a responsibility to portray mental illness compassionately and accurately?When it comes right down to it, I think the portrayal of mental illness in literature falls under creative license. How (or if) mental illness is included in a book is the author’s prerogative. However, an author that takes the time to do research and depict mental illness with compassion and understanding automatically becomes an author I’m infinitely more excited to read.Mental illness is much more prevalent in society than I think most people realize. It’s been stigmatized for so long that those who would see a doctor for any other health concern balk at even admitting they might be struggling on a mental or emotional level. I recently read a book in which a character was afraid of someone seeing them walk into a psychologists’ office and it broke my heart. It broke my heart because it’s a completely realistic reaction. I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed over twenty years ago, but it’s something I’ve been ashamed of until just a few years ago. It’s only recently that I’ve made an effort to be open and transparent about my struggles with mental illness.You can imagine how it feels to read a mystery or thriller, only to find that the villain’s sole “motivation” for committing a violent act is simply listed as “bipolar.” Or what about those books where someone dies by suicide, but it’s an act of revenge. Really? Shouldn’t we be past that by now?I’ve been fortunate that some authors and bookbloggers have been willing to write their own thoughts on mental illness in literature. I was going to integrate them all into a single post, but what they wrote was so insightful that I’ve decided to make a separate post for each of them. They’ll be published throughout the week. Please feel free to add your own thoughts on mental illness in literature: I want to hear all opinions!