Writing about mental health in fiction

Including tips, ideas and opinion pieces

Mental health in fiction. What does it conjure?

There are some fantastic examples (Girl on the Train and Homeland for starters - we think the characters are unreliable because they’re not well…and yet they prove us wrong time and again) and some not so great examples (anyone remember that episode of EastEnders with Joe Wicks in the tinfoil hat?)

Anyway, since 2016 I’ve been a bit of an anti-stigma campaigner. But that’s not because of EastEnders - I probably didn’t even understand the issue with it at the time. In fact, my anti-stigma drive all stems from being treated badly. Or, to put it another way, being bullied and discriminated against while struggling with an anxiety relapse. Twice.

Through blogging and writing comment pieces and, eventually, writing a memoir, I wondered if it was my goal to become a successful non-fiction writer. But after bearing my soul in my first book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, I felt like I had nothing else to say. I wanted to be creative, I wanted to campaign against stigma, but I didn’t have any more stories to tell. So, instead of trying to find some non-fiction angle that I probably wasn’t qualified to write on (beyond a memoir, I’m not sure what else I could have written an entire book about) I decided to make it up. Hence attempting my first draft of a novel. The novel which happens to be out now and called The Twenty Seven Club (you’ve got to get the plug in!)

The thing is, whether writing non fiction or fiction, mental health portrayals have to be accurate. And I was lucky to have picked up some fantastic experience in this area before writing my novel, having worked with the brilliant Jenni Regan who launched Mind’s media advisory team. We’d work on scripts from Coronation Street, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and many more, to ensure portrayals of mental health problems were accurate and responsible. And some of my favourite experiences were working with the Corrie team on long term storylines, such as Carla Connor’s psychosis and Peter Barlow’s addiction. Flawed characters - but on the whole, liked.

But it wasn’t about pretending stigma doesn’t exist. It was about striking a balance and ensuring that our empathy is directed towards the right characters should stigma rear its ugly head in any fictional scenes.

This was the approach I wanted to take with The Twenty Seven Club. Emma’s not perfect - far from it. But she has a good heart. She just doesn’t deal with her anxiety particularly well (drink, drugs, indulging in obsessional thoughts). But as long as the reader can see that what she’s doing isn’t healthy, then showing these unhealthy habits and Emma’s subsequent unravelling is absolutely fine. In my view anyway.

Nobody’s perfect, and mental health problems are separate from your personality. So I felt perfectly able to use some of my experiences of having an anxiety disorder in my fictional writing - even though the character was very different to me in terms of personality traits and upbringing, etc. Nobody’s perfect, it’s not stigmatising to show people making mistakes when they’re not well. But stereotypes, evil criminal minds apparently driven by mental illnesses and old-fashioned portrayals of treatment or mental health hospitals a la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest are stigmatising (anyone see that Kasabian video?).

So, just to share some of the things I’ve learned about mental health portrayals, here are a few pieces that I’ve written for my blog and various media titles that might just spark your interest (I hope).

8 tips on writing about mental health

Mental health in drama - striking the right balance

Opinion: Peter Barlow’s relapse on Coronation Street is a powerful challenge to addiction stigma

Opinion: Killing Eve’s Villanelle is not psychotic

7 times TV got mental health right

Oh, and I feel a bragging right coming on…on the subject of mental health portrayals, a short film my husband, Chris Connel, starred in, has just been selected for the Manchester Lift Off Film Festival. Watch A Message to James, starring Chris, directed by Sam Gannie and written by Tony Gannie, below.

TW: PLEASE NOTE - the topic of this film is suicide. So please only watch if you feel comfortable to.

I hope that rather than leaving you feeling broken, that this film shows how sensitively and powerfully we can portray the impact of mental health problems in the fictional media space. And, if you fancy delving into Emma’s anxiety story in The Twenty Seven Club, where I take a very different approach and use humour throughout - without making fun of the illness of course (I know very well that anxiety disorders are far from funny!) you can buy a copy here.

Thanks for reading. As always, please do share your thoughts.

Lucy xx