Writing Exercise: Mental Illness

Mental illness can be particularly difficult to write about. It has been treated in such a melodramatic and imprecise manner in popular culture that we have a lot of misconceptions floating around about the nature of mental illness. It doesn’t help, of course, that our medical understanding of mental illness has changed dramatically over the last century and even the last decade; it takes time for people to catch up. (Much fiction-writing is woefully behind the times with respect to medical theories of mental illness.)

Despite this, many people try to write about mental illness. It can make a fascinating character trait. It can make a wild plot twist. A little understanding of mental illness can also make it easier to write about “normal” people.

Spend some time trolling around official psychological and psychiatric web sites. If any of them have descriptions of mental illnesses, symptom lists, case studies, or general discourses on the nature of mental illness, then do a little bit of research. There’s no need to do a lot; pick an article and read it. Pick a single disorder and read a case study or two. If you’re willing to put a few more resources into the job, then pick up some books. You might start with the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition), or a couple of books of case studies (“DSM-IV Casebook,” “DSM-IV Made Easy”). There are also magazines, newsgroups, textbooks, and on-line support groups.

  • #8a. Take a few notes-how could you use what you’ve read to impact a “normal” character’s emotional development?
  • #8b. Imagine for a moment that you wanted to communicate the truth of a certain mental illness to the people around you. Brainstorm how you’d go about this. Would you use an essay form? Would you use a poem or a story? How would you get your message across without being preachy?
  • #8c. Contrast the popular view of a mental illness with the reality of that mental illness. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Why do you think the discrepancies exist?
  • #8d. Pick a mental illness that you’d like one of your characters to have. List out its symptoms. Which symptoms would be interesting to show in the context of your character? Which ones would be difficult to show? Which ones would be stereotypical? Which ones would be unusual? Which ones would be too over-the-top? Which ones would allow you to show the reality of the mental illness while still creating a dramatic and interesting character?
  • #8e. Mental illness is often invoked when a writer needs a character to do something for no good reason (usually violence). Look up a few studies on actual frequencies of violence among the mentally ill. Now, think about real reasons why people would be violent. List them out. List as many as you can think of. Make sure that each one is grounded in reality.
  • #8f. Look through a piece of your writing (or someone else’s) in which you make use of mental illness in some way. Is it a thin plot device? Are you true to the reality of the mental illness? Do you use it as an excuse to insert otherwise unreasonable behavior into your story? In 50 words or less, explain why it’s necessary to the story for one of your characters to have a mental illness.
  • #8g. Take a character who is mentally ill (from your writing or someone else’s). Think about how it would change the story if the character was “normal.” What would the differences in the story be?
  • #8h. What would your life be like if you had a mental illness? How might it have turned out differently? Where might you be now?
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