Not Crazy: Writing Mental Illness

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when mental illness is written poorly in fiction. Bipolar is not just happy and sad. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities. Over the years, people with mental illness have also been portrayed as violent. The truth is that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. Only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those with mental illness. There is also the misconception that people with serious mental illnesses can’t hold down a job. While I had a period of time during which I wasn’t working due to my illness, I now am a full-time copywriter with a marketing agency and have been for over two years. So, yes, people with severe mental illness can hold down a job.

The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to write a character with a mental illness? Do your research. Understand the illness. Get to know the diagnosis. Talk to someone living with that illness (if you have the opportunity). Want to hear a first-hand account of living with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis? Email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com.

Also, understand that not everyone is as open about their diagnosis as I am. It took me years to really be as comfortable with my illness as I am today. Here are some tips for writing about mental illness:

  1. Don’t make the entire life of the character about the illness, but understand that it can affect daily life. For example, I’m reminded three times a day that I have mental illness when it’s time for my meds.
  2. Words matter. Don’t use disorders as an insult or as an adjective. (“She’s so bipolar.” “Don’t be schizo.” “Ugh, she’s cleaning? She’s so OCD.”)
  3. Remember that there’s no cure for mental illness, so while your character may have a period of stability, they’re never suddenly “better.” It can take weeks for a new medication to take effect. And remember that medications have side effects!
  4. Again, do your research. Once you have a draft, have a beta reader with that illness or disability read it for feedback on your portrayal of their illness.
  5. The illness doesn’t necessarily have to be the central plot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing solely about mental illness.) It can be a barrier to your protagonist’s ultimate goal or desire or just simply a part of who they are.
  6. Treatment plans look different for everyone. Some folks find stability through therapy and medication, while others require more intensive treatments like multiple medications or even brain stimulation treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or even Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implants.
  7. Make your character with an illness relatable. Give them something that readers can relate to.
  8. Don’t make your character “crazy”—be sure to specify the illness in some way, even if it’s just in your head. Each of the diagnoses have a particular subset of symptoms.
  9. Lastly, be respectful when writing mental illness. Don’t use it as a mere plot device.

A brilliant book about life with mental illness is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it. I’ll say it one more time: Do your research on your character’s illness.