On Writing Characters with Mental Illnesses

(Image: The Depression Monster by Toby Allen)

CW: Depression, Suicide

I suffer from depression. I’ve been diagnosed at the age of ninenteen (I’m now 24) and need constant medication, since there’s something screwed in my serotonine cycle.

My grandfather suffered from severe bipolar disorder. My best friend, too, has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

So, you see, I’m quite familiar with mental illnesses.

And because of this, I usually hate, hate, HATE the way they’re portrayed in media (books, TV series, movies…) because it’s incredibly rare to find a faithful representation of what living with MI means. Most of the ones that I’ve encountered so far are either offensive or straight up harmful.

So here I am, writing a 5-points guide on how to faithfully portray people living with mental illnesses. What a jolly subject!

1. Be specific!

It’s honestly so sad that one must still point this out: apart from the term being very offensive, ‘craziness’ doesn’t exist. There are tons of mental illnesses, each with its own specific features. If you want to write a character with MI, you can’t just have them do generic ‘crazy stuff’, you have to research the kind of illness you want to portray and stick to it. For example, depressed people and bipolar people in their depressive phase may act similarly, but this doesn’t mean their illnesses are the same.

2. Mental illnesses ǂ irrationality

People with mental illnesses may act in a way that to neurotypical people appears irrational, but – and I can’t stress how important this is – it’s not! MI create a narrative inside your mind, and every action your character takek must make sense inside that narrative. For example, my grandfather stopped eating and taking his meds – which sounds irrational, but since he firmly believed my mother was trying to poison him it made perfect sense from his perspective. You can’t have characters act irrationally and justify it with ‘they have a mental illness!’.

3. Ask people!

Researching mental illnesses is important, of course. The Internet is your friend. But Wikipedia alone can’t tell you how a person with mental illness feels, or the impact said mental illness has on their life. If you don’t have a close experience with MI, never presume you can imagine ‘what it is like’ – because you can’t. Many people living with MI are happy to speak about their experiences as a way to break the stigma. Listen to them.

4. Don’t romanticize mental illnesses ffs

This is VERY IMPORTANT. I’ve often found, especially in YA books, that MI is used as a tool to make a character more interesting, the ‘brooding guy’ who suffers from ‘depression’ just because it’s cool. Well, F you, depression is not cool. Depression is the monster I had to fight through all my adolescence. MI is not something desirable, something that makes you cooler. To imply otherwise is so, so offensive.

5. Be very careful when approaching suicide

Suicide is a tricky subject, because portraying suicide can trigger something called ‘The Werther Effect’ – quoting Wikipedia:

The publicized suicide serves as a trigger, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide by a susceptible or suggestible person.

There are many documented cases of people reading/watching shows about suicide taking their life in reaction.

But this does not mean suicide must never be portrayed in the media, just that you have to follow certain rules when approaching the subject, to make sure the way you portray suicide won’t have ugly consequences.

To badly portray MI can be offensive and harmful. To badly portray suicide can literally kill.

So, please. Be careful!