This isn’t going to be one of my normal blog posts. Today I want to be more specific to the task of creative writing and character development. Particularly, with the imminent launch of the DSM-5, I want to deal with how mental illnesses are and should be portrayed in literature.
Now I don’t want to start off by being pessimistic. Society as a whole has made leaps and bounds in the area of recognising mental illnesses and finding ways of helping those who suffer from them. That being said there is still a lot in literature which misrepresents abnormal psychology as a whole and makes it harder for us to accept those in our society who are suffering from mental illness.
Of course it’s easy to understand why this is; characters with severe psychotic disorders, dissociative identity disorder or antisocial personality disorder make for rich drama. The problem is that they are more often than not false representations of mental illnesses; they are stylised, hyperbolic renderings of what the author understands mental illness to be. Intriguing serial killers, multiple personalities and the like are popular for a reason, but too often they are the only portrayal we are subjected to of mental disorders. As much as these stories have their place in literature, they often distort our view of mental illnesses and how they should be treated.
I understand how it can be difficult for us to humanise those who suffer from mental illness. We want to cover it up and pretend that this suffering doesn’t exist. It is hard to recognise the frailty of the human mind. This makes sense, mental disorders for the most part aren’t readily recognisable and it is often hard to discern when someone is suffering from depression or any of the insipid disorders that permeate our society. The fact is, though, that mental illnesses are far more common than we allow ourselves to believe. You probably all know at least one person who suffers from one or more disorders (comorbidity is prevalent with these disorders). Those who have mental disorders try to disguise them, often because of the view they are given in movies, novels and other literature.
Now as someone who has suffered from depression and several forms of anxiety disorders I think It’s time that writers work on a more truthful representation of mental illnesses using the characters they create. People need to understand the specifics of a disorder, they need to feel how difficult it is to face life when engulfed by the dark cloud of depression. People need to know that a mental disorder isn’t something that can just be shaken off, that it is not a weakness of mind.
As always the minds of others cannot be changed easily. You can’t tell anyone how to think. People need to experience something real and slowly come to a new conclusion. This is why characters with mental disorders must be treated with care, so that perhaps a few people will change their perspective and perhaps those people affect those around them.
Therefore I ask those of you reading this who write to maybe write a relatable character if he or she is going to have a mental illness, or at least do some research into the subject before writing about it. Writing is powerful. And for the rest of you, maybe read a novel with an accurate portrayal of the pain and suffering which mental disorders can cause. I would recommend Sebastian Faulks, an author who always does his research.