Mental Health Representation in Books & Why It’s Important.

The importance of mental health representation in books.

Dorian Gray Syndrome, famously coined after Dorian Gary, Oscar Wilde’s most talked about character in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, displays chronic narcissism, dysmorphophobia, and failure to cope with psychological maturation. Dorian is described as self-obsessed, is hated by society, and ultimately meets a cruel end. BDD or Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a mental illness characterized by this illusion that one’s body part is flawed, and therefore needs fixing. The thoughts can be compulsive and pervasive, taking up several hours in a day. But I’m not here to give you a rundown of what it is about. The time in which Oscar Wilde wrote his only novel was devoid of the concept of mental illness. Anyone displaying any signs of an unhealthy mind was considered mental or crazy or Satan’s spawn.

However, we’ve come a long way since then. Writers are advocating for mental health representation in books, voicing their opinions strongly, and ensuring awareness of mental illness takes place through the written word.

When I read Matt Haig’s book, REASONS TO STAY ALIVE, I was overwhelmed by the accuracy with which he spoke about his tryst with anxiety and depression. At that time, I knew only the surface layer of what anxiety might feel like, having experienced general anxiety that comes with living. Little did I know, I would come back to read this book over and over again when my anxiety had skyrocketed, leaving me with dread and constant worry. What is it about the written word that’s so comforting? Why are we drawn to fictional characters, their life, and their experiences? The week following my onset of anxiety I would unknowingly just reach for his book and spend hours reading and then re-reading some more. Even while at work, I would look forward to just returning home so that I could read. It’s unexplainable, the desire to get lost in words. Not much has changed, I still reach for a book, and it’s a reflex I’ve mastered. Books have made me realize we’re all together in our pain and struggle, that even if our world is turned upside down, we can turn to books even if it’s not real.

Mental health representation in books is highly imperative and plays a huge role in defining mental illnesses across all specters. The ability of the readers to be able to connect with the characters, to empathize with them, to understand how despite all the barriers, one is not alone, helps in coping with their own struggles. A simple acknowledgment on the part of the writers about mental illness goes a long way in removing the stigma and spreading awareness. Mental illness is a broad spectrum, one that cannot be confined to a particular book; but the act of learning and relearning by the mere turning of pages brings to the reader a sense of responsibility and a conscience that didn’t exist earlier. They begin to unravel layers of complexity in their brains and start to see things from other people’s perspective. It’s important to note that readers are smart, they grasp the subtleties and hints and a sudden change in emotion of the characters way better than writers could possibly imagine. Reading opens up space for the readers to finally let themselves lose, to understand their emotions and maybe come to terms with it. Hence, the onus falls on the writers to be sensitive to the characters, and give them the ending they deserve.

While many readers believe that the representation of mental health in books has helped them tremendously, others beg to differ. For someone who is suffering from mental illness, it becomes difficult to read about characters that hit really close to home. The pain and heartache become all too familiar, often acting as a trigger. Every reader is different, and their experiences have shaped them into the person they are which is why certain stories instead of calming them, tend to revive memories they wish to forget. Here’s where the depiction of mental illness falls into a grey area.

Most books, though well intended, fail to act as flag bearers of mental health because of their over-stereotypical nature, and exaggerated narrative, lack of sensitivity, and not to mention the tragic fate of their characters who’ve endured some form of mental illness. A dangerous trend of romanticizing and painting a rosy picture of mental illness has created a superficial image in the readers’ mind. It has become the new cool, and something the reader must aspire to in order to be accepted in their social circle. Not only is it detrimental to their own character development, but it also tears apart the struggles of people with mental illness. Misrepresentation of mental health robs a person from hope, and a chance to live a normal life. Extensive research and in-depth analysis are required on the part of the writers to be able to do justice to their story, and to mental health.

It’s more than just accurate representation in books. Most youngsters are still trying to understand what goes on in their heads, and books come closest in unraveling the chaos that is in their minds. In India, mental illness is still a stigma. Many people are unable to get help and suffer in silence. The existence of real characters displaying mental health issues is a powerful medium through which one can feel validated, and identify the core of their problem.

A little sensitivity, knowledge, and empathy on the part of the writers can go a long way in assuring people who may be suffering to believe in a better world. To know that you can be going through the hardest time of your life, and still emerge unscathed. For them to understand that their mental illness should not define who they are, that they are stronger than the voices in their heads, and to not feel alone in a world that has the potential to swallow you up in its entirety.

While we’re at the topic of mental health, it’s only fair that we hear what writers feel about mental health representation in books. I spoke to some authors and this is what they have to say:

  • There are a few stories on mental health and mostly deal with women or children. There are very few novels about men who are going through a mental breakdown. If at all, they are thrillers usually. Madness or mental breakdowns make people vulnerable. There are so many ways that a mental health breakdown can be depicted. For example, many people sometimes won’t even consider that Gatsby was not mentally stable. I think the representation of mental health is something readers have to develop as awareness as well.

————— Faiqa Mansab, author This house of Clay and Water

  • As an author, I think that mental health concerns are really not addressed I books adequately. There are different aspects to mental health other than depression which is never really spoken about in books. Schizophrenia is always spoken in the context of thrillers or suspense but no one ever covers the misery or the helplessness that a person suffering from schizophrenia goes through. There’s some awareness about depression and to some extent about general mental health after Bollywood started speaking of it, as it became somewhat acceptable but in books, we are yet to see that happen.

———-Monica Mujumdar Dixit, author of A Quest for Spring

  • To be honest, I am aware of 2 fiction novels by Indian authors that deal with mental health – Life is What You Make it by Preeti Shenoy and a recent one Missing Presumed Dead by Kiran.

Mental Health is certainly not an easy topic to write about. It needs much more research than simply going online and typing Mental Health on Google. But it can no longer be ignored. Data by WHO indicates one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders. Despite these numbers, people are unwilling to talk about their issues. There is a stigma attached to it and people end up suffering in silence. I truly believe authors need to be encouraged to write about diverse characters. It is the best way to create a conversation about issues that so many of us have to face in isolation.

You know when we read an interesting story and we go like “Oh man, I totally get what she’s going through.” That’s what we need today with these sticky topics too. Those who suffer should know they are not alone in this battle. When I say diverse … I strongly believe we need to bring more variety to our characters. Let’s weave stories that represent divorce, homosexuality, mental health, learning disabilities in their true form. These stories don’t have to be grim and depressing. I was lucky to work with Juggernaut and write about some tough topics in my debut novel. I do hope as authors we continue to see that support. Indian readers have devoured novels like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bell Jar. And Preeti’s novel went on to become a bestseller. So we have the appetite…we just need to be presented with a spread.

————-Donna Dias, author of Love is Never Easy

I’ve compiled a list of books, TV shows, and Movies that talk about mental health:

BOOKS:

  • Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • First, we make the beast beautiful by Sarah Wilson
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
  • The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

TV-SHOWS

  • Modern Narratives
  • Rewind to the 90s
  • Public vs Private
  • The Good Doctor (ABC)
  • This is Us
  • Jessica Jones (Netflix)
  • You’re the Worst

MOVIES:

  • The Silver Linings Playbook
  • Black Swan
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Still Alice
  • Shutter Island
  • Fight Club
  • Finding Nemo

At the end of the day, one needs to understand that the experience of reading a book is subjective, and our collective thoughts will be different. However, mental health representation depends highly on how the authors treat the issue. We need more writers who are empathic, and understand how vulnerable people with mental illness feel so that the stories they create make them feel that all is not lost even though it may feel like it.

Author: Shumaila Taher

I exist between the pages of a book. If you've written something and would like someone to edit or review the manuscript, I'm your person.

2 thoughts on “Mental Health Representation in Books & Why It’s Important.”

  1. This is an excellent, thoughtful and thorough blog post. Thank you for the list of books, TV shows and movies that deal with Mental Health. The more we talk about it and normalise the idea that not everyone is the same the less difficult life will be for people when they are going through something.

  2. What you have written is appropriate for the current times. I have been writing about mental health for 2 years but there are hardly any books on it that people can refer to. Trying to change the same with my new book.

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