Today is #WorldMentalHealthDay, and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to explain why I think characters with mental disorders or illnesses matter and why we need more of them in modern fiction.
Today, our world is fortunate enough to have a vast library of fiction that represents nearly any type of person. Any world, any race, any gender—no matter what or who you want to read about, there’s a book out there for you. However, despite rise of black, Hispanic, and other minority characters in literature, there is another type of person in the world who is still very much kept secret and overlooked. That is the person who suffers from a mental illness.
Despite awareness initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week and increased support on social media through hashtags, free support blogs, and more, mental illness is something people are more comfortable talking about but not admitting they have. To talk about depression is easy, but to let others know you have it is hard. You face judgement, questioning, and risk having your entire image changed in the eyes of your friends, family, and anyone else you choose to share your struggle with.
Although ethnic minority representation in literature is overwhelmingly important, there are many other types of underrepresented minorities today, and the one that is, in my opinion, most needed is mental illness. Characters who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, and more are rarely depicted as heroines in fiction. In fact, every time that I’ve encountered one in a book, it’s usually been more of an expose of the disorder itself and been rife with triggers at are not going to empower the reader who suffers from the same illness, but instead only serve to highlight the flaws they probably already feel they possess.
First of all, mental illness is not a flaw. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that their disease is a flaw, so why is a mental illness that you never asked for any different? Too many people are afraid to come out with their struggles, writing off their depression as “not serious enough” and their anxiety as “normal”. Everyone’s mental illness is different, and the degree that it presents itself doesn’t make it any less real.
You wouldn’t tell a person with stage I cancer that they don’t need treatment as much as someone with stage IV; someone who is depressed and keeps their life together outside deserves help as much as someone who has attempted suicide.
Why We Need More Characters with Mental Illness
In 2014, a total of 18.1 percent of US adults suffered from a mental illness. The ages of sufferers ranged from 18 to 49, with 20.1 between the ages of 18 and 25. This is our generation; the generation that I’ve grown up in, the one that I am a part of now. I am one of the 20.1 percent.
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for years, though I’ve never been treated. It took me months of suffering alone to realize that I wasn’t just “sad” and that what I felt was legitimate; it was not because I was weak; it was not because I was just going through a rough time. Depression is not cancelled out by tough times.
Characters with depression and aren’t just suicidal pessimists are not extremely prevalent in contemporary fiction. I’ve read a few books with depressed characters, but the majority of the time, their mental illness served as a challenge that prevented them from reaching their goals and becoming who they want to be. Too many books that feature characters with mental illness represent depression and personality disorders as something wrong.
What I want to see is a character who addresses their mental illness and struggles with it alongside a plot. Because when you are depressed, when you have anxiety, if you’re schizophrenic or bipolar, life goes on. You still have to get up every morning and go through the day. And not every moment is a hopeless mess. Not every day feels like an impossible mountain to climb or swirling vortex of disparity. There are plenty of times where you’re okay, happy even. You have friends and family. For many people with depression and other mental illnesses, life doesn’t always feel as empty as books make it out to be. Depression is an undercurrent, not the whole ocean.
Characters with mental illness matter because they give fellow sufferers someone to relate to, and help break the stigma to readers without. Thankfully, there are already quite a few good books that portray mental illness well, such as Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the book while his wife, Zelda, was being treated for schizophrenia.
Mental illness is something that demands treatment, but it’s also not something to be ashamed of. Characters with mental illness matter because they show us that having a mental illness does not define us. They show us that, despite how trapped some people may be in their own heads, they still serve an important part in the outside world.
What are some of your favorite books that feature characters with mental illness?
If you’re looking to read some yourself, check out this Goodreads list.