Thanet Writers Research Mental Illness
Mental health conditions affect roughly a quarter of us. These vary drastically from a very mild depression that can be treated fairly simply to much more severe antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is the official diagnosis of a ‘psychopath’ or ‘sociopath’. There are too many things for you to learn to accurately portray mental illness in your writing perfectly because, ultimately, those suffering from mental ill health are just people. No two people with the same diagnosis will behave in the same way because of that.
Mental health conditions do come with a sort of list of what a person’s thought patterns will contain. For instance, paranoid schizophrenia is characterised by paranoia and a dissociation with reality, but you can’t tell how that manifests from a person without knowing the person first. It will often come with delusions and hallucinations, but what those actually are will be down to the character themselves.
The main thing that you should know, if you’re considering including this in your writing, is that, unless you’ve worked in the field or done some level of research into the topic, you’re probably wrong about at least one thing that you think you know. Complete accuracy doesn’t always matter in your writing; characters are fallible, after all. However, if you are including some kind of official or medical person in the story they would be pretty accurate. So you need to be as well.
There are far too many myths out there to list but there are some big common misconceptions that you should be aware of. Firstly, schizophrenia and multiple personalities are two very different things. They’re often lumped together as one condition but schizophrenia doesn’t present with multiple personalities, disassociate identity disorder does.
Secondly, there are some words that are used by people that would not be used as an official diagnosis: psychopaths and sociopaths are not conditions. They can present within antisocial personality disorder but they don’t exist as standalone entities and are just two facets of antisocial personality disorder; just because you have antisocial personality disorder doesn’t mean that you’re a psychopath. And just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean that you’re a killer. Which brings us very nicely to our next point.
A condition doesn’t define a person’s actions. Like most things, mental health difficulties are on a spectrum. Antisocial personality disorder typically makes the person deceitful, reckless and impulsive with a disregard for other’s feelings. But the degree in which they feel those symptoms and their ability to overcome these vary from person to person. It ranges from people who do a few bad things to serial killers. Pretty much all mental health conditions sit on their own spectrum of severity.
The final point is that people commit crimes for many different reasons. There could be a real need—due to poverty or other circumstances—or it could be to feed an addiction, for personal gain, or because the person feels like it. People tend not to commit crimes because of mental illness. That’s not to say that people with a mental health condition don’t commit crimes; they do. It is, however, rarely that person has this condition therefore they do this or behave in that way. All of your characters should be their own individuals with their own reasoning for their actions, no matter what those actions are.
It is also very important to remember that treatments for conditions vary as well. Different illnesses have different managements or cures and people respond in their own way to each of them. What works well for one illness, or one person, may not work well for the next. Not all conditions are treated medically. The majority of them are treated more successfully with talking therapies than being medicated (although not always), or by a combination of both, and each of those is used for different ailments. If you’ve decided on a condition that you’re going to be including in your story, make sure that you get the treatment right as well as the condition.
Mental illness is not something that can easily be portrayed well if you haven’t had some kind of first-hand experience. And, unfortunately, it is too big of a subject for me to cover fully here. But if you’re going to be writing about it you need to do a lot more research beforehand, and not just the Wikipedia page. Most health services have a website where they outline how conditions usually present and what treatments are available. Most of the campaigns around mental health will have people’s blogs on their personal experience with certain conditions or experiences. Read them. Find out how real people live and manage with mental illness, and how it affects them, so that you can create real people on the page.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.