#2 Post of 2020: Do You Avoid or Tackle Mental Health Issues in Fiction?

(Post originally published on April 6, 2020)

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I bring up mental health a lot here.  Usually, it’s in regards to the topic itself and not connecting it to writing.  Well, I’m going to switch that up here.  Wednesday and Friday are going to be some 7 Tip lists for depression and anxiety in fiction while today is going to be more of an open forum.  The question:

Do you think mental health issues should be avoided or tackled in fiction, especially genres like fantasy?

Personally, I think it depends on the author.  You can’t force someone to include a subject or trait that they aren’t comfortable with.  They might know enough about the mental issue to use it, which means research is needed.  It could also be that they are afraid of offending a sufferer with an incorrect depiction or to trigger something.  Since we are talking about a sensitive situation, it’s totally understandable that one would feel this way.  Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to attack an author who tries and fails to depict a mental health issue even if they were being a jerk about it.  Respond with a rational criticism and try to educate if possible.

That also brings me to the other side of the spectrum that I’ve seen.  Some authors will take the more sensational version of a mental health issue for dramatic effect.  Anxiety-riddled heroes who can barely get out of the house.  Depressives who cry every time they speak and are covered in self-inflicted scars.  OCD is a term that is flung around so casually that it loses all meaning to some people.  Don’t even get me started on dissociative identity disorder, which used to be split personality disorder . . . Mostly because I’m still not 100% sure on how to work this one.  Anyway, these extremes can exist in reality, but they aren’t always the case.  To make it look like this is the only way it can go can be upsetting to those who suffer in a different way.  Especially when your depiction causes readers to expect those extremes in sufferers, so they doubt the words of anyone suffering in any other way.

This really is a delicate topic to add into your stories.  With fantasy, I think there are magical ways to cushion the blow or explain why it isn’t widespread.  Kind of a big cop out there, but it’s something.  At least with the more severe mental illnesses because you have psychics, casters, and healers out there.  One thing that is a dangerous tactic here is to use mental health issues as ‘curses’.  It’s pretty easy to do and comes off like a good idea when it’s in an outline stage.  The brave hero is sudden afflicted by anxiety or depression or a phobia or OCD or any number of things.  Yet, this can backfire and come off as insulting because it makes the conditions appear evil.  They’re not.

As I continue writing, I’m considering adding some mental health issues into my stories, but I’m still twitchy on trying.  There is going to be an addiction subplot in one book series, which stems from severe grief and depression.  I don’t know if this counts since it’s a deep sadness with a source and not a depression with no clear catalyst.  Anxiety is one that I might consider more because I have a better idea of that one.  I guess another reason for me personally is that I really want to maintain the escapism and heavy topics like this can shatter that illusion if you’re not careful.  They won’t be the main focus of a story, so they’ll be there as subplots or character traits.  This kind of prevents me from tackling the really heavy ones because those need a lot of attention and focus.

Anyway, what do you think about this topic?  Also, if anyone ever wants to write up a guest post on a specific mental health issue then feel free to ask for a spot.  Awkward request, but I feel like I’m limited in experience and knowledge here.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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14 Responses to #2 Post of 2020: Do You Avoid or Tackle Mental Health Issues in Fiction?

  1. utmost importance to include and bring awareness to Charles! Nice you bring it up.


  2. Lots to think about here. I remember this post and can see why it was popular.


  3. C.E.Robinson says:

    Charles, a good topic to revisit. Mental health issues have degrees of affliction. I favor characteristics and not full blown diagnoses. They convey emotional turmoil that comes out under pressure during an event. And they need to be dealt with either overcoming the emotion or falling into it for a time. That to me is called conflict that our readers crave! You can do this with anxiety, depression, trust issues and fear of loss. Conflicts like that drive a story in any genre. 📚🎶 Christine


    • It is risky to openly declare a diagnoses in a story, especially if it’s a complicated issue such as schizophrenia. People might see flaws in the depiction and then you end up insulting that group by accident. Adding the emotional and physical aspects certainly works better.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a good one, Charles. Lot’s of good advice here.


  5. L. Marie says:

    No wonder this was such a popular post. It’s definitely one we talk about a lot in my family, since my sister-in-law is a therapist, her dad was a school guidance counselor, and my dad taught was a high school special ed teacher.


  6. I think it can be written about if it’s handled with sensitivity and is well researched. If you are not confident or find yourself guessing and sensationalising material then it’s crossing a line. Personally I have a dissociative identity disorder diagnosis and I find the way popular culture understands the disorder is largely inaccurate portrayals from movies. While I’m starting to see more people research the symptoms and cause (which is wonderful) I’m noticing that people can’t seem to help themselves by making one of the ‘identities’ secretly evil or a murderer. It’s time for a new narrative. People living with DID are trauma survivors, they have been hurt badly and are far less likely to commit serious crimes than your average guy in a bar on a Saturday night and yet this stereotype of the evil or vengeful murderer has become such a stigma based stereotype that it prevents people from being open about having DID for fear of being judged as potentially dangerous.
    I’ll get off my soapbox now! 😂


    • The challenge with DID and the evil personality may stem from the Jekyll/Hyde trope. The idea that a person can have a good and evil switch shows up a lot in fiction and philosophy. Unfortunately, people use DID as an explanation instead of having it be a non-disorder cause. This may come from a push to explain everything since readers want a ‘realistic’ reason. I wonder if genre plays a role in this too.

      I think DID is one of the hardest ones to pull off in fiction. The stigmas combine with the complication that your average person won’t know. Unless the story revolves entirely around it, there’s going to be some things missing. So, it’s definitely high on the risk list in terms of screwing it up.

      Liked by 1 person

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