In 1969, in an interview with the Paris Review, E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, said the following: “I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
As writers, we have a great responsibility; we must be careful how we represent–or refuse to represent–certain conditions, cultures, identities, etc.
As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, I’d like to ask all authors to reexamine the role mental health issues play in your stories. As Natalie Noel Truitt said in yesterday’s article on mental health in books, mental illnesses need to be spoken about. But, when we choose to speak about them, how will we represent them?
One important thing to consider when writing or revising our work in progress is how we use certain terms. Mental illnesses are not adjectives. Statements like “you’re so organized you must have OCD” often slip through. Many times those who say them or write them are unaware of the harm they can cause.
Classic example: the word “depressed.” When your characters are feeling blue and say “I’m so depressed,” it creates a problem for those who are truly depressed. Why? Depression is a serious and grave condition. If someone says they’re depressed when they’re really just a little sad, then the opposite must be true, right? Someone who is truly depressed must only be “a little sad.” As I’ve struggled with depression myself, I know how much it hurts when someone dismisses a serious condition, saying you’re only exaggerating or being a sissy.
The same goes for other conditions, such as Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Attacks, Anorexia, etc. The list can go on and on.
Don’t call someone retarded if they don’t suffer from a learning disability. Don’t say someone is ADD when they’re simply distracted. Make sure your characters don’t joke around or exaggerate saying they’ll kill themselves or have a panic attack if something happens. Conditions like these are serious matters, and should be treated as such. Don’t trivialize mental health issues.
On the other side of the spectrum, don’t vilify these conditions, either. I’ve read one too many books were the villains suffer from a mental condition (like Multiple Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder) that turn them into horrible people. Personally, I was called “psycho” for having a panic attack, and treated almost as if I was dangerous. Experiences like this can have a very negative effect on someone suffering from a mental illness, when what they really need is support and understanding.
All media has a profound effect on how our society conceives certain issues. How you represent certain conditions could have a profound effect on how your readers react to them–and those who have these conditions–in real life. As a reader, writer, and human being who has suffered due to mental health illnesses, I urge you to be considerate.
What you put down on paper has a resounding effect on those you read your work, believe it or not. Will he help propagate this erroneous views of mental illnesses? Or will you help spread awareness and challenge the stigma of mental health conditions?