I’ve been a mental health writer for nearly eight years now. It’s something I enjoy writing about, and it’s something I know how to write about, because I have been diagnosed with several mental health conditions. But it’s not easy.
Writing about mental health means opening up to the world and making yourself vulnerable. It means potentially sharing things that are quite personal to you, and worrying years later about who’s read it.
Writing about your mental health means trusting an editor who you possibly don’t know very well, to keep your story true to you — which doesn’t always happen.
And so, writing about your mental health, I feel, is something you should do with caution.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way — how personal to be and when to stop. I’ve been there, looking back at an article and thinking “Why did I write that?”, because what I’ve written in the past, makes me wish I hadn’t been so vulnerable in the present.
The one thing I hear a lot is: Trauma sells. And this is quite true. Many publications will look for traumatic stories without actually thinking of the writer’s wellbeing. It’s somewhere I’ve been. Though I’m super lucky to now work with publications that take mental health stories seriously (including Inspire the Mind).
There have, unfortunately, been other cases where my stories have been sensationalised for shock value, leaving me feeling vulnerable. It’s made me extra cautious when pitching and has made me re-evaluate how vulnerable I should be in my writing.
And so, if you’re thinking of getting into writing about mental health — especially personal essays, I just wanted to give a few tips. Because the one thing I’m incredibly cautious of is not re-traumatising yourself for the sake of a commission.
First, take a week to think about what you’re pitching
When you’re struggling for money, you can end up pitching an article without really thinking about it, hoping an editor will take it. And then when they do, you might regret having pitched it, but feel too uncomfortable not to write it. So, take some time to think about whether you really want to pitch the story or whether it’s more about the commission. Think about how it’s going to affect you to write and to read back and to share with the world — think about the commission last.
Pitch to the write place
Don’t just pitch your personal stories anywhere. Look at places that have other similar stories, whose stories have been published sensitively, and ideally, a publication that specialises in mental health. You need to be comfortable, secure and confident in where you’re pitching.
Speak to the editor first about your byline
If you’re worried, speak to your editor about whether you can write it anonymously. I know in the past there have been personal things I’ve wanted to write about, because writing to me is very therapeutic. But I’ve also asked whether it can be an anonymous story, because I’d rather treat it like a diary entry, keeping it personal but also secret. It’s okay to ask to be anonymous. It’s okay to write under a pseudonym. All you need to do is ask — and all they can say is no — in which case, rethink whether it’s really the publication you want to write for.
Take breaks while writing it
I don’t know about you, but when I’m really struggling I tend to bottle everything up. Everything sad goes to the back of my head in a little box and I lock it away. I remember an old therapist telling me that she found me frustrating because I don’t allow myself to feel sadness. And that’s true. I can’t talk about sad things and I try not to let myself cry. I try not to think about things — but they become overwhelming and then I end up writing about them. When I’m writing about them, all of the sadness and frustration comes flooding out. And so I tend to take breaks when writing, so that the computer keyboard doesn’t become sodden with tears. Taking breaks while writing about something personal to you is a form of self-care. It’s okay to feel things while writing your story, and it’s okay to allow yourself to feel these things. But look after yourself while writing, don’t allow a piece to traumatise you. And if you start to feel panicky, stop. And re-evaluate whether it’s the right time for you to write about this subject.
Give yourself a lengthy deadline
Personal stories take time. So give yourself an extended deadline. Don’t rush your story or force yourself to write it when you’re not in the right mindset. It’s important that your words come from you when you are ready to write them — not when you’re on a quick deadline and therefore need to scribble them out to meet it.
Put your wellbeing first
Remember that you are a person and that you deserve to tell your story authentically and in a way that is most comfortable for you. Say no to edits that you’re not comfortable with. Speak to your editor about what you’re writing and why certain pieces are important. Take care of yourself when writing. Writing might be your job — but it’s so much more than that. With mental health writing, it’s a way to speak out, to raise awareness, to fight for better services and for those who are struggling. But make sure that what you’re writing is true to yourself, and that you are comfortable with your final piece. Please don’t cause yourself unnecessary upset for the sake of a commission.