4 pitfalls to avoid when writing about mental illness


“Despair” – Edvard Munch

Writing characters with mental illnesses can be a challenge. Authors must do some amount of research to be sure they’re representing the experience in a compassionate, honest, and believable way. Here are five things to keep in mind when writing mental illness.

1. Avoid a magical recovery

Books and movies about mental illness often end the same way. The person finds the right type of help, or makes a mental breakthrough, and they’re now on the road to recovery, which is portrayed as such a steady and even journey that it’s not worth spending any time on.

This is rarely the case. The road back to sanity is long and grueling. There’s rarely a single moment of epiphany that sets someone on the way to being “all better.” Recovery is hard work, and each person’s path is different. In fact…

2. Not everyone recovers

Mental illnesses come in varying severity, and some people only make a partial recovery, or no recovery at all. For some, being functional enough to make it to the grocery and keep a clean home is as good as it gets. Others may require long term care. It’s a spectrum, not an all or nothing.

Each person’s experience is different, and it’s important to remember…

3. Nobody looks like a textbook

It’s easy to flip open a book on mental illness and use that laundry list of symptoms to create a character. But in real life, each person is unique. Some people may even have severe symptoms that aren’t in the book, but are still related to their illness. And when you’re creating that list of symptoms, keep in mind…

4. The illness is not the person

I have said some terrible things in the midst of a manic episode. I have been incredibly selfish when struggling with the depths of my depression. But when I’m on an even keel, I try to remember that those things didn’t come from me, they came from the illness. And the illness is not me.

Your kind, caring character might say something selfish, or do something cruel, or behave in a way that doesn’t make sense at all, in the midst of their struggle. That doesn’t change who they are. It’s a symptom of a disease.

If there’s one lesson to take away from all this, it’s that everyone’s experience is unique. The point of research is to gain perspective and understanding of the many forms mental illness can take, and to learn and practice compassion for those who struggle with it.

A textbook (or Wikipedia) is a good place to start, but a glimpse into the mind and world of someone with a mental illness is invaluable for a writer. Here are a few books that I’ve found helpful to gain insight into the experience (rather than a textbook style discussion) of mental illness.

Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl by Marguerite Sechehaye

An Unquiet Mind (or really anything by Kay Redfield Jamison)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (her poems are also excellent windows into her illness)

Photo credits:
Despair by Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Featured image by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “4 pitfalls to avoid when writing about mental illness

  1. Robin says:

    My book is geared around the main character dealing with her mother’s mental illness and addictions. Ultimately, she has to move from judging her mother to feeling compassion. She had to realize her mother didn’t have the kind of control she thought she did! Sadly, it is autobiographical and based on my own mother. I wish our country had a better understanding of mental illness.
    Robin 😃

  2. Maggie_Flynn_Writing says:

    This is a really fantastic post, and I’ll definitely be bookmarking it for reference. I think the magical recovery option is a very tempting one for writers because of the desire to wrap things up neatly, regardless of whether it’s actually true to life. I’ll definitely be adding the books to the reading list as well.

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