One of the reasons I love fiction is that so many different themes and topics can be explored. There’s an endless well of stories that exists in each of us, and mental health is just one theme you might explore in your own fiction writing.
That being said, it’s an incredibly important topic to discuss, and one that must be handled with care. This month, I launched a pre-recorded webinar with author and licensed therapist Samantha Heuwagen to teach writers more about this topic. But first, let’s get into the basics of mental health and fiction.
What is mental health?
Mental health can be defined a few different ways, often with nuances for the scope of the conversation. But generally speaking, mental health is a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well being.
How does mental health show up in fiction?
When I edit manuscripts or read for fun, I usually see mental health showing up through trauma, or those very distressing situations characters find themselves in. It makes sense—stories are made from conflict, and traumatic situations are part of conflict.
But mental health is more than the traumatic experience and reaction to it after. Mental health can show up as so many things in life and in fiction.
Other experiences and themes you might explore include, but are not limited to:
- Panic attacks
- Major life transitions/changes
Are themes of mental health different than a character’s internal arc?
Yes and no.
Seriously! Like so many things in fiction, this depends on your story, your characters, and how you develop your themes.
Themes of mental health can start within a character’s internal arc, but consider expanding outside of the character too. Healing and emotional wellness do not come from solitary living. Humans need support systems and connections throughout their healing journeys, and your characters are no different.
Think about how your themes and instances of trauma, mental illness, and recovery might impact both your main character and external characters. This will give your audience a richer reading experience.
How do you write about mental health without adding to existing stigma?
When writing about mental health, wellness, and healing, you need to take care in how you portray the topics. This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t write about these topics, just that you want to avoid adding to existing stigma. Mental health and illness are still taboo topics even in 2020.
“You have to research and you have to be aware of your sources,” says Samantha. Research is one of the best ways to ensure you’re providing accurate information about symptoms, causes, and modes of healing. “Depending on the source, it might be another bit of misinformation or someone’s opinion, not well-researched by clinicians who work with mental health every day. To be safe, always check who you’re referencing.”
As Samantha said, be careful which resources you trust. Start with professional organizations and publications to get the most accurate information. A great place to start is Psychology Today.
“And if you aren’t sure about how well you’ve portrayed these themes, first think about your reason behind writing this story,” says Samantha. “You want to be helpful, not hurtful. Also, ask for feedback from trusted beta readers and critique partners about these themes. Make sure you warn them ahead of time to avoid unnecessarily triggering them.”
Webinar: Navigating Portrayals of Mental Health in Publishing
Samantha and I first gave this presentation at RavenCon 2019. The reception was fantastic!
“We realized we needed to add to the discussion about representing mental health responsibly in fiction. It’s very subjective, but it’s been written in the past as an over-reaching, ‘this is what it looks like for every person’ kind of experience,” says Samantha. “That’s simply not true.”
The recorded webinar covers the topic in-depth, providing more guidance on research, actually writing these themes, the publishing process, and more. You can purchase it for $40 USD over in the Between the Lines shop.
Questions? Feel free to reach out to me or Samantha on our websites or social media.