May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is a subject that has been integrated more into literature in the past 10 years, and we believe it’s important to open that dialogue and address issues that people might not understand or that get swept under the rug. We reached out to one of our spring 2017 authors, Jenna Patrick, for some insight into writing about mental illness.
Jenna’s debut novel, The Rules of Half, is out on June 6 and is available for preorder now. Praised by Redbook as “the perfect trifecta of a dysfunctional family, mental illness, and inescapable small town dynamics,” The Rules of Half focuses on a mentally ill protagonist and the family relationships that are affected by those circumstances—for better or for worse. Here, Jenna offers up some ways to effectively and compassionately portray mental illness in writing.
If I asked you to picture someone who is mentally ill, chances are a range of images would flood your mind: a person in a strait jacket with a tortured expression or an elderly patient in a nightgown, sitting in a corner, staring out the window.
But for the vast majority of those who suffer from a mental illness, the correct mental image is more along the lines of a depressed-looking teenager lying in bed or a troubled man or woman in the throes of a therapy session.
The stigma around mental illness in our society, like many other things, is one of extremes. Crazy people, like in those stereotypes shared above, should be locked up and forgotten about. Normal people, like the troubled teenager, aren’t really mentally ill – they are just having a bad day. Some people are taught that mental illness is an excuse, and others are taught that it’s something to be ashamed of. And while advances in research and awareness over the years have helped to eliminate this stigma in the medical field, we are far from putting it to an end in everyday society.
If you are considering adding a mentally ill character to your next manuscript, here are a few tips to help you debunk the mental illness myth.
1. Remind your readers that mental illness is not a choice, it’s a disease.
There is a misconception that people can just decide not to be depressed, and if you don’t address this in your manuscript you could lose sympathy for your character very quickly. Mental illness is a disease, just like cancer or diabetes, and it requires medical treatment from a doctor. Show that patient/doctor relationship throughout your manuscript. Show the medications and the hospitalizations, and what happens without them. At the same time, don’t bog down your manuscript with a science dissertation of mental illness. You don’t want your novel to sound like a textbook, but you also don’t want your main character to look like a selfish jerk throwing a pity party.
2. Add some light to all the dark.
Mental illness can be a dark, scary, and very sad thing to portray, but you don’t want to completely depress your readers. Many people read to escape the troubles of their lives and don’t want 300 pages of heavy. You have to add some smiles in there somewhere, be it through a quirky character, a humorous episode, or a heartwarming breakthrough scene. My main character is quirky and also suffers from manic episodes, which sometimes puts him in awkward situations. However, a word of caution – if you do use a part of the illness in this way, be sure you don’t end up “poking fun” or demeaning the disease. Otherwise, you could just be adding to the stereotype you are trying to overcome.
3. Add credibility to your main character.
Contrary to how Hollywood sometimes displays mental illness, most sufferers are not bat-shit crazy people who belong in an Arkham Asylum (a little pun for my superhero fan friends). You need to show that your character can make rational decisions even though at times they are completely irrational, otherwise your reader will not trust them. When they are irrational, use your secondary characters to show what’s real and what’s not. Either switch points of view or, if you are writing first person, have the rational character recount the event in conversation with the main character after the fact. This will help to avoid confusion in the plot and also give your reader a chance to view the main character’s illness through the eyes of someone who loves them.
4. Make the illness the villain, not your main character.
Depending on the type of mental illness you are writing about or even your story, your character will sometimes do bad things. They will make terrible decisions, hurt those who love them most, and act in ways that some may see as unredeemable. That’s why it’s important to distinguish your main character as a victim of his illness. Show his remorse for what his illness has done to others, and show him struggling to overcome it. Redeem him through the eyes of the other characters and show their struggle in separating him from his illness. Make sure your reader knows that, without the mental illness, your main character would not do these things.
The key, as with everything in writing, is to find the right balance specific to your genre and voice. Obviously if you are writing a Michael Myers-type character for a horror, you wouldn’t care so much about these. But if your goal is to change the stigma, as mine was, this is a good place to start.
Call me an idealist, but I truly believe that as writers we have the power to change people’s minds. So, when I set out to write The Rules of Half, I was determined to do exactly that. And while I know not all of my readers will change the way they view mental illness after reading my book, I’m hopeful that some will. And if I can change just one person’s mind then it was well worth every word.
THE RULES OF HALF, JUNE 7, 2017
If Will Fletcher’s severe bipolar disorder isn’t proof he shouldn’t be a parent, his infant daughter’s grave is. Once a happily married, successful veterinarian, he now lives with his sister and thrives as the small-town crazy of Half Moon Hollow. But when a fifteen-year-old orphan claims she’s his daughter, Will is forced back into the role he fears most: fatherhood.
Her biological dad isn’t the hero Regan Whitmer hoped for, but he’s better than her abusive stepfather back in Chicago. Still haunted by her mother’s suicide and the rebellious past she fears led to it, Regan is desperate for a stable home and a normal family—things Will can’t offer. Can she ride the highs and lows of his illness to find a new definition of family?
The Rules of Half explores what it is to be an atypical family in a small town and to be mentally ill in the wake of a tragedy—and who has the right to determine both.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Raised in northern Ohio, Jenna Patrick moved to North Carolina in 1998 to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she received a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. After 10 years of devoting her brain to science and math, she returned to her true passion: writing fiction. She and her husband reside on Lake Norman with their two daughters and two rescue dogs. The Rules of Half is her debut novel.