Thoughtful Thursday | Mental Health Representation in Fiction

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.

Some mental health conditions include, but are not limited to, Depression, OCD, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders.

In my opinion, mental illness in literature has become more prevalent due to the development of the internet and social media which have made us intentionally and unintentionally more aware and more connected. There are various platforms for us to talk more openly with like-minded and even unlike-minded audiences about issues, both personal and societal. Desired information regarding mental health–symptoms, coping techniques, hotlines, etc.–are easily accessible. Like talking to a professional, talking to others online seems easier than talking to those closest to us in real life.

I believe there are good and not-so-good ways of creating stories which depict mental illness. For some, it requires reading through various examples to form an opinion. But for some who are more sensitive, such as myself, we know almost immediately if a book is triggering, unrealistic, sympathetic or liberating.

As for my personal experiences: I have yet to seek professional help, but I do suffer from general anxiety, low self-esteem and depressive episodes. I don’t think anyone should feel ashamed about being self-diagnosed, but I am hoping to see a therapist in the near future because I do think, at this point in my life, is the perfect time and opportunity. I have a colleague/friend who has been exhibiting symptoms of ADHD most of her life but has gone un-diagnosed–she has also experienced bouts of depression and panic attacks.. She just began seeing a therapist this month and is very happy that she did.

Here are some of my thoughts on mental illness representation in fiction:

  • A character’s mental illness comes down to how they feel within and about themselves, whether that be emptiness, worthlessness, or suicidal. It also comes down to how their illness affects their daily life and how they function or can’t function.
  • Mental illness is not a blame game. This was the main issue I had with Thirteen Reasons Why. Yes, others’ actions can be triggering for someone with depression, but they are not direct causes. (Don’t get me wrong, though—many of Hannah’s classmates were grade A assholes, but in the end, so was Hannah).
  • I believe authors, particularly YA authors, have a responsibility when it comes to writing about sensitive topics such as depression, OCD or suicide. While I understand every story is a unique experience to different readers, they deserve a story that is genuine and will not only engage them, but teach them about the issues represented. I also would not be opposed to authors providing critical hotlines or other relevant resources at the back of their books.
  • Mental illness shouldn’t just be a convenient plot device. It should be consistent throughout and not only become noticeable to build tension or create conflict. A story that, unfortunately, is an example of this (in my opinion) is Jillian Blake’s Antisocial.
  • No single book is the epitome of mental health representation. Readers will experience and respond to a book in different ways.

Here are a few YA stories I read and liked which either focus on mental illness or feature characters with mental illness.

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (my review)
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
The Start of Me & You by Emery Lord (my review)
Kat & Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza (my review)
Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

What are your thoughts on mental illness depicted in fiction? Are there any books you’ve read which you think truly represented mental illness in a way that was both real and empathetic? Is there a book you read which didn’t? I tend to read and connect the most with stories which feature characters suffering from anxiety disorders and depression. What about you?


Twitter: @jasminesreading
*2018 Reading Challenge Update: 91/200

16 thoughts on “Thoughtful Thursday | Mental Health Representation in Fiction

  1. Kaladin from the Stormlight Archive series was written to have depression + maybe a bit of bi-polar/hypomania – which I think Bradon Sandersom did a great job of depicting. I see a lot of myself in Kaladin and can relate to how he was written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome. I’ll have to look up that series. I sometimes neglect to acknowledge fantasy/sci-fi stories which also depict mental illness among other sensitive topics. (got your email btw, thank you! I wasn’t sure if you received my response).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with everything you said. I also have anxiety and feel the way it’s portrayed or written is not how it actually is. Probably because (like you said) it was just used as a plot point. I want to read that Adam Silvera sooo bad but I know it’s gonna make me cry like a baby

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember reading the Crank series in high school!

    I’m always interested in different authors’ approaches to writing mental illness in fiction. It’s tough, especially when writing about something you’ve never experienced. I wrote a short story about a man with anxiety (here, actually), and I actually really enjoyed writing it because I’ve suffered from extreme anxiety myself. Plus, the more it’s written about in fiction, the less stigma will be around it, and that’s what we should be aiming for!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your own writing—when I get a chance, I’ll try to read it myself. I agree that writing about something you have not experienced first-hand is not easy, which is why I think those authors have an especially important responsibility to ensure that the issues they depict are honest. Regardless of the controversy surrounding some novels like Thirteens Reasons Why, I think they get young people thinking and talking about these sensitive topics more openly.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it way easier to talk to a stranger about my issues than the people closest to me. Therapy really helps though!
    Um, The Bell-Jar is a good read. It is Sylvia Plath after all. And Girl, Interrupted was also enlightening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Suziey. When I was in college and really struggled emotionally, I found it easier to talk to my newer friends who didn’t quite know me as well as my previous/older friends who have known me for longer. I think like many, I have managed my mental health enough to get by, but as things changed over time, I had to find new coping methods. I am starting to think looking toward professional help might be the next best step for me now. In a way, I feel like I’ve been avoiding it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was the exact same way! It was in college when I realized something was off. I brushed it off though and I thought I could do it on my own. Which I did, for a few years. And then everything just kind of spiraled out of control… It was a really bad time for me and I wound up in the hospital. So believe me when I say, therapy really does work.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I could talk about mental illness representation in novels for literally everrrr. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart and as soon as I realized that authors were talking about it and not shying away from the tough subjects in the world, I immediately started to consume those books. Some of my all time favourite books are books that focus and center around some form of mental illness, I have slowed down on reading them but that’s only because I have other books I want to read right now. I’m always looking for books that represent the topic well, i think that these books are so incredibly important

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome! Yes–it’s wonderful and refreshing to see that more and more authors are writing stories about mental illness these days. Now it’s a matter of sorting through the genuinely depicted stories and the not-so-great. But I think it’s great that there are more to choose from since different readers will respond differently to the representation provided. They get the important discussions going among young people which is the most important, I think!

      Liked by 1 person

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