Hello, wonderful readers!
If you know even just a little about me, you know I’m a huge advocate for mental health. I believe it such a critically important part of a healthy life, and is one that is ignored far too often, especially in Christian circles. As someone who has been in therapy for nearly a year now, I like to approach it from an honest, yet hopeful, outlook and I hope that is evident in this post.
I’ve read quite a few books with either a focus on mental health or an accurate depiction of it. Whether it’s the focus of a story or not, mental health, mental illnesses, and all that both encompass deserve to be told in a realistic and accurate manner.
In a lot of ways, I feel like today’s fiction does that. There is emphasis on its importance in our current society and that bleeds into our literature. But there are still quite a few things that are problematic about mental health and literature today, and that’s what I will be sharing with you all.
Boyfriends Don’t Fix Depression
Read that heading again. And again. And again. The amount of times books that were about mental health (ones that I still thought were pretty good, I might add) just “had” to add a love story where their mental issues were fixed in the end. (Thanks, puppy love and the rare dose of serotonin it brought to our protagonist). This trope is highly problematic for two reasons: One, it can make a reader who struggles with the same issues believe that if they are alone, then that isn’t enough. That they must have a significant other who will magically help them heal and not the therapy and potentially medication they should be taking. Two, it’s yet another way our society waters down the horrors that mental illnesses can wreak on the person affected by them, as well as loved ones around them.
No one wants to talk about the weight loss or gain that comes from having absolutely no will to take care of yourself. No one wants to mention how anxiety can be paralyzing, making the person turn to harsh coping mechanisms to deal with the panic attacks that are always lingering just seconds away. The vast array of triggers that there can be, and how they don’t always just make you “cutesy” anxious so you need your boyfriend/girlfriend to wrap you in their arms telling you something disgustingly poetic (spoiler: this NEVER happens in real life). Mental illnesses are scary, raw, and never a poetic intensity of human emotion and vulnerability. You only see that realistically in the poetry that those who suffer from them bleed out as a form of release.
Throwing in a love interest for the sake of having a romantic sub-plot is sloppy writing at its worst. It’s society’s way of profiting off of cheap emotional connections that paint over the actual issue of mental health the story was trying to highlight. Now, that does not mean you can’t write a story about someone who has a love interest, but please don’t let them “fix” the protagonist. People who actually suffer from depression, anxiety, BPD, and more push away loved ones. They lash out, withdraw, and shut down. Sometimes you can’t get through to them. Sometimes your words aren’t enough to help them. Presenting a love interest as a “fix-all” tool is highly problematic and especially dangerous for those who look to these books to either get a better understanding of those who suffer from mental illnesses or to better understand themselves.
Guess What? Schizophrenia and BPD Are Mental Illnesses, Too
Too often the books that delve into the topic of mental health focus on one of three things: Depression, anxiety, or suicide. OR, a combination of two or more. Out of all the books I’ve read pertaining to this subject, only one has been about anything else, and that’s OCD. People are too comfortable with the thought of depression and anxiety. While still stigmatized, they’re far more palatable than those “crazy ones.” We’re able to water down and rationalize those illnesses, so when we see them in literature, we don’t have to really think about it.
But when it comes to one like schizophrenia, people don’t want to have to accept that those who struggle with it are human too. They’re not some crazy, foreign creatures that you can lock away so you don’t have to think about the fact that mental health is important in all its facets. I’m honestly sick and tired of the trope of the high school girl who battles anxiety for eight months and then decides to travel and it heals her in ways that nothing else has. And that’s not to say that what I just described is not also a valid mental illness deserving of compassion and support. But it’s all I see, and when it comes to the world of mental illnesses, it barely scratches the surface.
We have to stop watering these subjects down so that people don’t feel uncomfortable. Because listen, you should! The realization that suicide is the second leading cause of death in American teens should terrify you. The fact that tens of millions of kids each year are diagnosed with a mental illness should turn your stomach. The reality is not pretty, and we need to stop showing it like it is in our literature. That brings me to my final point:
Mental Illnesses Are Not an Aesthetic
The amount of people I see on Instagram and TikTok making jokes about their “depression” angers me. And now, I’m not talking about people who genuinely have been diagnosed and struggle with a mental illness, but those who use the term as just a feeling and then turn it into a clout move. Here’s the deal: Mental illnesses are not for your exploitation and viewing pleasure. They’re ugly and painful and they hurt not just you, but the people around you. It’s dangerous to show in our literature that it’s aesthetic and intense in a rather beautiful, yet painful sort of way. Because yet again, it’s another way to downplay the critical role they have in the pain and unhappiness so many people feel today.
Some people turn this pain into poetry, into songs, into stories. Into aesthetic forms of art that allow them to find release in a way that ends in beauty and not pain. This is not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is the girl laying out under the stars next to a boy, telling him much she loves how the heavens shine in the velvety night, as if he hadn’t just found her cutting herself thirty minutes before. It’s when an author has a teenage boy slump to the floor of his bathroom and chooses to focus on how the tears rolled down his face instead of the utter agony that drew them there in the first place.
Mental illnesses aren’t an aesthetic. They aren’t a trend. They aren’t a cute caption for your Instagram bio. They’re a scientific, medical condition of the brain that can severely hinder your ability to function normally. They’re not “Oh, I’m sooo OCD, hahaha.” Or, “I’m literally so depressed right now.” Or, “I think I just saw something. Haha, maybe I’m like crazy or schizophrenic or something.” Mental illnesses are none of these!
In conclusion, I think there’s a lot that’s done right in regards to literature and mental health today. But just because we’ve come so far doesn’t mean there isn’t more still waiting for us. We owe it to ourselves and others to bring on a better generation. One that acknowledges mental illnesses for what they are and what they can do to individuals and families alike. And literature has its role in that.