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What Writers Should Know About Mental Health

The intersection between art (especially writing) and mental health has been observed for a long time– be it writers like Woolf and Hemingway and Plath that suffered from mental illnesses to the portrayal of such maladies in stories such as Hamlet, Speak, Looking for Alaska, and many more.

Journaling can be an effective tool for gaining or maintaining mental health (for example, see this post at NAMI) but it can also cause negative side effects such as leading to too much thinking or obsession with thoughts (as shown here at Psychology Today).

So what’s important to know about mental health or mental illness as a writer?

For writing about mental illness:

  1. Part of the reason there is so much stigma around mental illness is because the average person doesn’t know a lot about it. Limit jargon. Talk to people who have had the illness. Do your research. Go into it assuming you know nothing.

  2. Language is important. Use person-centered phrases (ie a person with depression rather than a depressed person). Stick to phrases such as “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide” to prevent connotations of sin or illegality. Stay away from words like psycho, schizo, crazy. 

  3. Don’t use diagnosis for non-person objects/situations.  The only “thing” that is bipolar is the mood of a person with bipolar depression. You aren’t OCD with cleaning unless you are scrubbing your hands until you bleed or are cleaning so much it is detrimental to your well being (yes this is criteria for diagnosis).

  4. Past diagnosis aren’t current diagnosis. Being transgender or gay is not a mental illness anymore. Neither is female hysteria (basically being a woman with an opinion or emotion). Read the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) for what currently is classified and what someone needs in order to get a diagnosis.

  5. Add content warnings and prevent details of events such as suicide. Content warnings are especially important for people who are triggered by certain material to prepare for, or avoid, such stimuli. This prevents panic attacks, flashbacks, and more. Including details about suicide (especially on the news) has been linked to increased rates of suicide.

  6. Mental illness is not a characterization or plot. Give your characters more than just a mental illness– just as people are not defined by them, characters shouldn’t be either. And although it is a tough thing to struggle with, your character should want something more than “getting better”. Rape/PTSD/etc should not be included just for a plot twist or tension.

  7. Representation of relationships is especially important around these subjects. Characters should not be “cured” by simply finding “the one”. Illnesses of any kind should not be romanticized, nor should unhealthy relationships. Recovery should not be promised, but sad endings should not be the norm either.

For all writers:

I loved this article by the Writing Cooperative about mental health risks in writers.

  1. You face a lot of rejection, solitary time, goals that feel unreachable, and an art that could allow for an infinite number of drafts. Overthinking and judgement are key to good art, but also key ingredients to negative thought patterns. Of course, not all writers have mental health issues, but it’s important to realize there is a correlation. The article above goes into the difference between alone and being depressed. If you feel on edge all the time or have trouble sleeping, you could have anxiety. If you’re even considering getting help, reach out to a primary care provider or find a therapist to get an assessment.

  2. Writing should be fun. If it’s not, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong but take a step back and look at why it no longer is. What can you change to get back the spark? Take a break? Write something else?

  3. Try to build community and support systems where possible. Just because you write alone doesn’t mean you can’t have support. Start or join a writing group to get together with people. This can allow you to write or exchange pieces for advice. Get beta readers for feedback and encouragement. Share your writing with friends and family and tell them about your goals for accountability.

  4. Have realistic goals and manage your expectations. You are no less of a writer if you only write 1 day a month or if you don’t ever publish.

Anything I missed? Comment below!

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