Writing about mental illness without being exploitative

ebook_cover_RedHaze_2014In my novel Red Haze, I have a number of characters who are experiencing extreme situations and have extreme reactions. At its base, the novel is a murder mystery with a paranormal twist. But for the formula to work, the characters needed to react to trauma appropriately: anguish, rage, delusion.

These emotions make every muscle in our bodies tense until they feel like they might snap, our stomachs churn, and our heads throb. Complex emotions are often the most difficult to capture in writing.

A complex character, however, will feel these very emotions.

While extreme emotion is difficult, trying to capture long-term effects of duress and other forms of mental illness is even more daunting and delicate.

Did you know*:

  • One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • One in 17−about 13.6 million−live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. For ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13 percent.
  • Approximately 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
  • Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

In my opinion, gone should be the days when a killer is “crazy” or “psycho” or whatever just because his mom dressed him in girls’ clothes. We understand mental illness more than we did in the 1960s, and our stories should reflect that.

So what are the best ways to write a compelling, complex character who may have a mental illness? Whether writing a villain or the protagonist, turn to the writer’s best friend: research. Many organizations are providing detailed educational opportunities to help general members of the population understand mental illness, and that includes erasing some of our own biases.

mental_health_monthThe National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a great resource to educate yourself. Check out the website: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM) has detailed information on most major disorders. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/index.shtml

The Mental Illness Education Project includes a long list of additional resources for your education and research. http://www.miepvideos.org/

MentalHealth.gov offers a myth and fact page that is very useful: http://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/

The final link I provide is to a scholarly article at Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, but it helps shed some light on the stigma those with mental illness face: http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/6/1/65.full

Many more resources are available to help us become better informed writers who do not inadvertently demonize a mental illness that may afflict our neighbors, friends, and even our family members.

*Fact sheet: http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

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