Writing a Character with a Mental Illness (tutorial)
Hey, guys! I’m here with a tutorial about how to write characters with mental illnesses. That can be tricky, but since mental illnesses are very common across the world, it’s also worth working to get them right. There are two things that are key, and I wanted to talk about them a little to hopefully steer you in the right direction.
First: familiarize yourself with the illness. If you’re already familiar with it, either because you’ve struggled with it yourself or have close relationships with people who do, this is going to be a bit easier for you, but it’s still useful to at least think about different presentations of it, since no two experiences will be exactly the same.
One thing many people do is google the illness and read up on the symptoms. That’s worthwhile to give you an academic understanding of it, but it’s important to recognize that symptom lists will always come up short when it comes to a person’s lived experience. If you rely on symptom lists, you miss out on the practical implications. Instead of relying on medical literature, it’s useful to talk to or read about the experiences of people who have struggled with the illness. That can take a lot of forms, including (but not limited to) talking to friends, posting for help on writing communities, reading blogs/forums, and reading memoirs of people who have struggled with the illness in the past - the point is to understand what symptoms like sleep disturbances or disproportionate guilt feel like to actual people.
Keep in mind, too, that having a mental illness isn’t synonymous with hitting rock bottom. It’s important not to minimize the impact a mental illness can have on a person’s life, but by the same token, it’s important to depict the full range of what mental illness looks like, not just the worst-case scenario. Many, many people with mental illnesses lead functional lives with occasional rough patches, particularly when they have access to medical treatment. The symptoms don’t necessarily go away entirely, but they can become a lot more manageable. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to ever write characters who are in crisis, but If you’re only writing characters with mental illnesses who are in total crisis, you’re not really portraying it in a responsible way.
As you familiarize yourself with the illness, also keep in mind what comorbid illnesses are associated with the illness you're researching (i.e., two chronic illnesses affecting the same person). A number of people with at least one mental illness have more than one mental illness - some estimates even put that at a majority. For example. most people people with eating disorders also struggle with a mood or anxiety disorder. Even those who aren't actually diagnosed with another illness may have spillover - someone with depression may not actually be an alcoholic but still have unhealthy or problematic attitudes surrounding drinking, for example.
Second: think about the specifics of your character’s situation. Consider how intersectionality, their access (or lack thereof) to appropriate medical care, the existence (or lack thereof) of a strong support system, cultural attitudes surrounding mental illness, and the world/time period might impact their experiences.
Mental illness can affect anyone, and by definition, it has a significant impact on a person’s life. Relative privilege doesn’t immunize a person from struggles, especially since mental illness is often internally-driven - the chemicals in a depressed person’s brain aren’t interested in whether there’s a reason for them to feel depressed any more than the body of someone who has a life-threatening allergy cares that there’s nothing objectively harmful in peanuts.
However, a person’s situation can absolutely impact their struggle, and it’s not a coincidence that groups who face systematic oppression tend to have higher rates of certain mental illnesses. For example, LGBTQA+ people are far more likely to report depression and thoughts of suicide than the general population, because they’re much more likely to face discrimination and bullying than cisgendered heterosexual people in otherwise similar situations. Similarly, women are more likely to be depressed than men, because women face more overt and negative consequences of widespread misogyny and sexual violence.
That happens because marginalization isn’t neatly compartmentalized. The societal narrative that equates women’s worth with their appearance, minimizes sexual harassment and assault, and encourages both fat-shaming and effusive praise for weight loss impacts women struggling with eating disorders. The racism behind the United States government’s callous and blatant disregard for human life in the name of “scientific progress” in Tuskegee, Alabama continues to negatively impact many black Americans' trust in the medical community. (Those are just two examples - the ways that mental illness interacts with other characteristics to impact a person's experience is basically infinite.)
So, think holistically about how your character’s background might impact their experience of the illness(es) you’re trying to portray.
Once you’ve done both of those things, put them together and try to write the character! Don’t let fear stop you from trying it - it’s okay if your first try isn’t perfect, and not just because perfect is subjective! We’re all constantly improving - the only way to do that is to take chances and learn from our past decisions.