Consider processing and strengthening your mental health by letting your creativity flourish
Once upon a time in a land far away — also known as 1999, a book titled Speak was released. About four years later, it found its way into my thirteen-year-old hands while browsing at my local library.
If you’re not familiar with the title, Speak is a fiction book that details a young girl’s experience in high school after being raped by a classmate over the summer. Throughout the book, she struggles with depression, isolation, and re-traumatization when she confides in a friend about what happened and isn’t believed.
I hadn’t thought about this book in years, and I’m talking like 18 years, until a few weeks ago. I took my daughters to a book shop, and lo-and-behold guess what title was sitting as a featured read front and center on the shelf?
Rereading it now means something entirely different to me than it did back then. The mental health themes speak to me loud and clear. I got to thinking, what if I wrote fiction with mental health themes?
I’m a mom, a sister, a daughter, a tia, and a friend, among many other things. But when it comes to the role I choose for myself, I am a proud mental health advocate and a writer. Mental health is health — full stop. My work won’t be done until we’ve ended the stigma around these discussions.
I struggled with mental health for as long as I can remember — long before it was openly discussed. I can’t help but wonder how my life may have been different if I received help for mental illnesses before the age of 30. While I can’t rewrite the past, I’m determined to advocate and contribute to rewriting the narrative around mental health.
As a person who actively manages anxiety, depression, and PTSD, there is nothing like a good fiction read to give me somewhere to escape. But what about the other side of the coin? Let’s talk about how writing fiction can help you manage your mental health.
Processing Your Struggles Via Your Characters
How often do we hear mental illnesses thrown around by people without understanding the weight they carry?
“Come on. Your vibe is so depressing.”
“You are just being crazy!”
What if you were able to educate your audience about what it really feels like to be bipolar? What if you could explain the different ways a depressive episode can actually manifest.
By allowing your characters to show what life really looks like living with a mental illness, you contribute to a more realistic understanding of what some people write off as “crazy” behaviour.
In a short fiction piece that I’m currently working on, my main character manages PTSD and anxiety attacks. As someone who struggles with both these mental health conditions, it’s important I accurately represent the experiences of so many through my writing.
By doing this, I can use my fiction writing to benefit my reader in two different ways.
First, help educate those who have not personally experienced these mental illnesses. By giving them a first-hand view of challenges that come with managing mental health, so they can better support those in their life who do.
Second, by having my character’s character arc include managing her mental health, I hope to validate my reader’s feelings toward their own mental health.
In preparation for this piece, I reread some of my current fiction drafts that I hadn’t picked up for a while. I never critically read my work through a mental health lens.
Clearly, I can find defined mental health themes or elements throughout my words. Sometimes, it’s historical fiction involving Catherine Medici and her processing trauma when Florence was sieged. Other times, it’s in new adult fiction involving a toxic relationship.
Which leads me to the second way writing fiction has helped me manage my mental health.
Rewriting Your Narrative About Past and Future Experiences
How many times have we said things would be different if we knew then what we know now? I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of scenarios in my 30-something years I wish I could rewrite.
Maybe, the moment I realized anxiety was running my life. I struggled, silently, shamefully, for many years trying to outwork, out achieve, anything to outrun my anxiety.
I wish a character in my favourite book would have experienced this and had a positive outcome. Sure, it’s messy and hard and shrouded in stigma, but seeing someone navigate that successfully would have meant the world to me.
The beautiful thing about fiction is that as the author, you determine what happens in their story. The good, the bad, and ultimately the ending. While we can’t go back and change the narrative of our own lives, we can give our characters better situations.
At the same time, there is a responsibility that comes with heavy, real-life narratives. For example, there is a highly popular YA (Young Adult) fiction series, The After Series by Anna Todd, made into films. In these books, mental health is secondary to the character’s love for each other. Love that is problematic at best but, truthfully, incredibly toxic.
I have no doubt Todd did not intend to reinforce a potentially harmful narrative. But when it involves emotional abuse, gaslighting, and excessive alcohol abuse used to self-medicate by a character who suffers from PTSD, it can get sticky. And it is being consumed by millions of readers, many of which are young adults.
The problem with this work of fiction isn’t depicting real-life mental health struggles. The problem is the narrative that (potentially) young readers are getting.
But, Holly, this is fiction, with fictional characters who have fictional problems.
While this is true, the fictional characters can be modelled after real people living this reality. And when the story ends with the exception (not the rule), it can reinforce unrealistic expectations.
It also may send the message that these harmful coping mechanisms and toxic behaviours in relationships are normal.
As someone who has made questionable choices when it comes to boundaries and how my mental health has been affected, it’s a priority to write about them realistically in my fiction.
The best part is giving my readers an alternate ending, a happier and healthier resolution to potential real-life conflicts. Because sometimes we are so conditioned by what society expects us to accept, we forget we have other choices.
By writing that ending for them, I hope to empower them to accept nothing less than what they deserve.
I’d like to encourage you, whether you are a reader or a writer, to critically think about the narratives you are consuming or creating.
How does the narrative depict mental health and mental illness? How does that depiction make you feel? Are the takeaways in your book trending with a typical trope, or are they empowering you to be like the characters within the pages?
When we accurately talk about and represent mental health and healthy relationships that support mental health, we all win. Together we can end the stigma around mental health and rewrite the narrative.