Kill It with Fire: Mental Illness as a Plot Device

I have mental illness. This is not a secret. I’m not trying to hide it. I don’t generally open with this fact, but it’s there, and I deal with it.

According to fiction, I should either be living on the streets, plotting to burn down a school, or killing myself right this second. I’m not doing any of those things.

Or I could be in a mental hospital. That’s a popular trope in fiction. But I’ve never been admitted as a patient to the hospital, although I do see a therapist semi-regularly; I am on medication, and I do have family members who have been admitted to the hospital for mental health issues.

Their experience in the hospital is nothing like most fictional characters. They are not surrounded by sadistic or uncaring nurses, have not been tied to the bed or forced into a straight jacket. No one else managed to commit suicide while they were patients, although one patient did self harm, and that caused a new series of lockdowns. There’s no way to sneak out, have sex with other patients, and you can only be kept without your consent for about 24 hours.

That’s not to say it’s relaxing vacation. They do a body cavity search at some hospitals, you get asked the same annoying questions every day (Why are you here? What is your stress level?) You are surrounded by people most of the day. If you stay in your room, they check on you. You have to attend group therapy sessions. The food is boring. Visitors are really, really important, but it can be awkward too.

The thing is, there are a lot of things that define me more than my mental illness. My crazy (pardon the word choice) love of books, the fact that I read extremely fast, and how I completed almost 250 books last year. My seeming eternal struggle to get healthy, which is complicated by a food addiction (wait, that’s a mental health issue), which has got me on a ketogenic diet and going to the gym. My sarcastic, smart aleck sense of humor, which has gotten me into trouble over the years.

In fact, I would rather you say ANYTHING ELSE AT ALL when describing me instead of – “Oh, that’s Speedy Reader. She has depression.” How about, “Oh, that’s Speedy Reader. She likes to read.” Maybe a little obvious. But “Oh, that’s Speedy Reader. She’s one opinionated bitch,” would still be an improvement over the first comment. And it’s true. I am always opinionated and sometimes bitchy.

Writers, please, please, please keep this in mind when you’re writing. It may be trendy right now to talk about mental illness. This is an improvement over the years where it was such a taboo that everyone was ashamed to admit such a thing existed. But using it as a way to give your characters a back story is not an improvement. If you want to see a book about mental illness that’s done right, how about Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman? It’s incredibly moving and real. But how about some books where the character happens to have a mental illness, but it’s not the central defining characteristic of the person? Like The One in  a Million Boy by Monica Wood.

Basically, if you’re writing about neurodiversity, mental health, or treatments for mental health, DO YOUR RESEARCH! You’re not helping by perpetuating false stereotypes. That’s sloppy writing. It’s not edgy. It’s offensive. It’s hurtful. I am a complex person, not just whatever my brain chemistry says. I’m more than that. Come on, fellow writers. Get it right.

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