The importance of mental health representation in books

May 31, 2023 | General

A light blue square with an illustrated cloud and rain, with the text "mental health representation in books" in purple.

Like I mentioned in a recent post about Latine representation, seeing ourselves reflected in media can be a powerful experience. I’ve also talked about the importance of fat representation in fiction. As May ends, a month where we highlight mental health awareness, I wanted to talk about how stories can help reflect healthy views on psychological wellbeing by including mental health representation.

On the mental health of characters

When writing a character, an author has to make decisions about who this person is. Often, if the writer plans the story, they have to balance what makes them unique with what fits the plot. This may relate to giving depth to a character, or moving the plot forward. Traits like “quirky”, “cocky”, “sassy” help give them shape. What if some of these adjectives related to their mental health?

When I started writing Seeking Stars, I didn’t plan much. I had an idea and started writing; that’s how I discovered that Liam, the hero in that book, was a progressive, emotionally mature man. The more I wrote him, with his thoughtful perspective of himself and the world, and his difficulties with fame, the more I thought, “wow, this guy has done some work on himself”. Granted, I’m biased. I’m a therapist, and I believe that, in our current culture, it takes a lot of intentionality to learn mental health skills. So, what did I do? I decided he’d been in therapy for some time, and that it helped explain his superb skills. Writing him in therapy gave me so much joy! Even more, I appreciated that it could help normalize people choosing to access counselling, especially coming from a romance hero.

It was different in the case of Done and Done. In this book, I needed to decide why the hero, Alex, was such a grump. As I came up with the plot and decided this book would include a one-night stand, I had to figure out why he left right after and later returned. It was through this creation process that I decided that the hero’s arc would include him coming out of depression. This forced me to contemplate how I would describe this psychological state, and how I would make sure that I did so properly.

Making informed choices

The thing with representation is, it only works if you do it right. It’s important to consider how we write our characters, because doing it wrong has the potential to harm people. For instance, what would happen if I wrote depression wrong? I could end up invalidating someone’s experiences, or further stigmatizing mental health challenges. As a therapist and a person, I wouldn’t want to do that.

To minimize risk, I had to be mindful about how depression played a part in the story. Thanks to my training, I had the knowledge that depression sometimes can look like anger, and it’s not always a lifelong experience. I understand what it feels like and what it takes to get out of it, both as a professional and as someone who has experienced depression. Furthermore, I decided that for this hero, depression wouldn’t be chronic, but a temporary filter through which he saw life due to things he’d experienced. Without knowledge and a mindful approach to the issue, I could have made unintentional choices. In turn, this could have resulted in poor representation or, worse, harm.

This is why researching, learning, and weighing down the pros and cons of our decisions is so important. And it’s specially the case when we describe historically excluded and oppressed identities and experiences. To collect information about it, we can use our lived experiences as well as research. If you want to incorporate mental health representation into your book responsibly, you need to be mindful of the typical stereotypes and reflect on how your story might be falling into traps.

Respect and understanding

In terms of mental health in particular, an important question we need to ask is if we’re writing these stories with respect. Psychological wellbeing is an extremely complex issue, which can’t be resolved by simply deciding it.

A very important choice I made while writing Done and Done was that falling in love with the heroine wouldn’t solve the hero’s depression. Love isn’t a solution; it’s the support we need to change what we can change. It’s also an aid when there are things outside of our control. Still, it’s not the cure. Mental health representation requires deference, and that includes understanding what will and will not help it. That’s why, in this story, the hero goes to therapy and takes medication as part of his journey. Coming out of depression helps him be available to falling in love, not the other way around.

As you can see, deciding to include depression in my book wasn’t a simple, one-time action. It took a lot of consideration and purpose. In a way, the process itself has to be respectful. If we make a commitment to engage with our writing this way, we can use our power as authors to create a world where others might feel seen in a positive way. Little by little, we get to be part of the change. Hopefully, taking these steps will help us write an accurate and compassionate story.