Implications: On Writing Mental Illness and Why Representation Matters

Rebecca Anne Renner

A few years ago, my friend “Michelle” was kicked out of the house where she’d been living with her uncle and his girlfriend. Michelle didn’t understand what she’d done; she’s not exactly a trouble maker. She’s more likely to be caught at home with a novel on a Saturday night than out in a club. But a few months later, Michelle’s cousin related back to her all of the lies their uncle had spread: his girlfriend was afraid of Michelle. He thought Michelle might be dangerous. It was because she was “crazy,” and like everyone knows, “crazy people” are violent. At least that’s what popular media had led Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend to believe.

When Michelle heard this, she knew what she’d done wrong. She’d confided to her uncle’s girlfriend about her struggle with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that, while creating some difficulties for Michelle, had not stopped her from graduating with honors from a prestigious university, maintaining an important job, or being a good friend. Michelle’s mental illness certainly hadn’t made her dangerous. According to numerous studies, people with mental illnesses are no more likely to commit a violent crime than anybody else.

The problem wasn’t with anything Michelle had done (notwithstanding all of her noisy reading and studying); the problem was with the false stereotypes that Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend had consumed over time on page and screen. Countless movies, TV shows, and books vilify people with mental illnesses.  Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend had encountered these representations so many times that they took them as gospel, because nothing they had seen portrayed them otherwise.

“It’s not like it matters . . . It’s just fiction.”

Flash forward to this fall, my first year teaching high school creative writing. I told my students to write a short story, and without a prompt, fully a third of them wrote about mental illness. In every story, the character either fell in love or committed a horrible crime (or both), and then they all died at the end. For most of my students, this kind of subject matter read as a juvenile attempt at being “serious writers.”

I was relieved to start reading the work of the more accomplished authors in my class. One in particular is a tenth-grader who reads widely and loves to write about anything dark. I already knew “Bailey” had chosen to write from the perspective of a schizophrenic character, because I’d been listening to her talk to her seatmates in class. But I’d also heard her say something that made me cringe: “I did a little research, but it’s not like it matters. It’s just fiction.”

Of course research matters. If Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend had been exposed to factual portrayals of mental illness, they wouldn’t have had a reason to kick her out. With trepidation and a little hope, I started into her story. Her prose was beautiful. She let the experience of the character warp the descriptions in a fluent way that would make Neal Shusterman proud. Then the plot took a turn. Horrified, I watched as this flawed, multifaceted character that Bailey had developed shriveled into a stereotype, a cliché. Bailey’s story ended with her protagonist burning down a building, killing herself and several others in the process.

I was furious, but I had bigger problems. I needed to have a one-on-one critique session with Bailey the next day. But what was I supposed to say? Your prose is great, but your plot makes me want to break your pencil. Hand over your artistic license so I can cut it in half.

I felt that way because of how the portrayal of mental illness has effected those I love. As of 2014, one in five people living in the United States has experienced “a mental health issue” in their lifetime. One in 25 lives with a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder (Michelle) or schizophrenia (my mother). Then there are the countless people I know with debilitating anxiety or OCD. I have seen the faces that hide these invisible illnesses, and I have seen people treat them differently—distrust them, break up with them, kick them out—because of the myths propagated in the name of plot.

Artists Are Responsible for How They Encourage People See the World.

Mental illness crops up frequently in fiction. There is the humorous (It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini), the serious (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey), the uplifting (The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick), and the obligatory romantic tragedy (All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven). Shakespeare got there way before those authors did. Mental illness has been a widely used trope since before writers knew what it actually was.

Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend weren’t exactly book people. They did watch Law and Order: SVU every single night. One episode in particular happened to trigger an important conversation between Michelle and her uncle’s girlfriend. In that episode (Season 7, Episode 22, “Influence”), the criminal du jour is a young woman who, though having long ago been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, goes off her meds because of the influence of a rock star she saw on TV. After she stops taking her medication, this young woman “goes crazy,” makes false rape accusations, and mows down several people in her car.

This inflammatory portrayal of mental illness made Michelle pretty angry. The worst thing Michelle had ever done during an episode of mania was to buy expensive exercise equipment online. While Michelle was watching that episode of Law and Order: SVU with her uncle’s girlfriend, the woman made an offhand remark disparaging people with mental illness. Michelle then decided to inform her of what having bipolar disorder is really like. Two weeks later, Michelle was out on the street.

That episode of Law and Order was fictional, but it mattered in a big way, because someone took it as a kernel of truth, internalized what happened on the screen, and let it manifest as fear. This is one of several reasons why media representation matters for any group. Writers who plot without thinking about the implications of their fiction do a grave disservice to the people they portray, because as my very first creative writing teacher said, “Writers are important. What you say is important. You are responsible for how people see the world.”

Whose Story Is This to Tell?

Lately, the internet has seen a great deal of volleying back and forth about “cultural appropriation” and “Who Gets to Write What?”  I think we as writers, editors, publishers, and educators, need to broaden our horizons when it comes to reading writers and characters who are unlike ourselves.

When I first read Bailey’s short story about the schizophrenic girl who kills herself and several others in a fire, I called my best friend practically spitting with rage. She listened to me calmly. I clearly needed to vent. But she couldn’t hold her silence any longer when I said, “She can’t write that!”

“Who are you to tell her what she can or cannot say?” my friend spat.

I said something along the lines of this: Bailey isn’t mentally ill. She shouldn’t write about things she knows nothing about.

“How do you know?” said my friend.

“I just don’t know what to say to her! It’s so well-written,” I said. “I don’t know how to tell her that it’s bad!”

The next day, I pulled up Bailey’s short story on my iPad. I situated my notes, and I called her up to the podium. I was so ready to tear the girl a new one until I saw the look on her face: big eyes, a worried crease in her brow. She shrank into herself as she walked toward me, and it was then that I remembered that Bailey, though a talented writer, is barely 15-years-old. She looked up to me. She needed me to tell her that there’s something worthwhile in her art, because there is, because maybe nobody has ever done that before.

So I took a deep breath, and I said, “Your prose is amazing.”

Bailey’s eyebrows must have shot halfway up her forehead. “What?”

I went on to tell her how expertly crafted the voice she used was, and I could tell that she’d really worked hard. I told her that she was at the point in her writing life that she had the nuts and bolts down. Instead of focusing on how she wrote, now we had to focus on what, on the implications.

Then I asked her a question: “How much research did you do on schizophrenia?”

Bailey answered with an expression between a smile and a grimace. “Not very much,” she said. “Is it that obvious?”

“You can’t do that,” I said. “Even though it may not seem like it, this kind of thing, the way mental illness is portrayed, affects peoples’ lives.” I told her that when people read stories that are wrong, and they don’t know any better, they often assume those things are real. The stigmatization of mental illness can be a barrier. It can stand in the way of people getting jobs, can effect their relationships, can even prevent them from seeking medical treatment when they need it.”

Bailey said that she had no idea. She asked me what she could change.

I told her the ending was the most problematic part. Murder and suicide make for too tight of an ending, too easy.

I agree with what Kaitlyn Greenidge said in her New York Times piece “Who Gets to Write What?” published in September, 2016. Even if you’re writing a character who has done something horrible (Bailey’s character had manipulated and betrayed her friends and family), you as a writer “have to love [that character] into existence,” (Greenidge). That is especially important when the character is an “other,” is unlike you the writer.

Bailey had to see her character as a living, breathing being, one who had joys and passions as well as anger and heartache. I told Bailey that I couldn’t tell her what to write. Nonetheless, she asked for ideas. We talked plot and about story structure, how sometimes the circle works better than the hill.

A week later, Bailey emailed me the final draft of her short story. In its climax, her protagonist tries to start a fire, but the fire only singes off her hair. Newly shorn, and having realized her turmoil, the girl lets her family put her into treatment. The reader gets the impression that they’ve been through this before.

It’s a mixed feeling, just like reality. Nothing is resolved. To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, it is not the writer’s job to solve the world’s problems, only to state them clearly (Chekhov 104).

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @becky_renner

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, and Simon Karlinsky. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Berkeley: U of California, 1975. Ebook.

2 thoughts on “Implications: On Writing Mental Illness and Why Representation Matters

  1. Becky Renner says:

    Reblogged this on Becky Renner and commented:

    Mental health advocacy is really important to me. In this blog post for Obra/Artifact, I talk about the importance of getting things right and loving your characters into existence, especially when they are not like you.


  2. speedyreader says:

    Good for you for suppressing that first instinct and instead using this as a chance to teach about the importance of representation. I’ve been dealing with mental illness my whole life and while I’m happy that it’s easier to talk about, I’m really tired of writers using it as an edgy plot device. It’s my life. It’s my kids’ lives. And it is important to get it right, even in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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