Exploring Mental Illness (Writer’s exercise)

First, read the exercise. Second, read the text that follows–it’s quoted from a blog entry I wrote more than a year ago. Finally, grab paper and pen and get to work!

Pick a fictional character (one you’ve already created, one from someone else’s work, or one you create for the purpose). Next pick a mental illness you wish to explore through that character; don’t go with something garish and flashy (in other words, don’t immediately think “serial killer”). Use Google to research the illness. Take notes. Look for case histories if you can find them. Next, free-write for five to ten minutes on how that illness developed in the character’s life. Then free-write for five to ten minutes on how that illness affects the character’s everyday life today. Finally, free-write for five to ten minutes listing out any ideas this gives you for interesting character quirks, plot developments, themes, etc. Then go back through this material and cross out anything that sounds trite or obvious, or that clashes with what you’ve learned about that illness.

Mental illnesses are complicated, curious things, rarely like what you see in the movies and on television. They defy easy diagnosis, classification and treatment. Each person’s manifestation of symptoms and response to treatment is different, and a given person’s issues can change over time. …

  • Mental illnesses are complex. They can be difficult to unravel, diagnose, and treat. It’s even harder when one person has multiple illnesses, which is quite common.
  • Many mental illnesses are biological in origin. ADD and bipolar are both believed to be biologically-based … PTSD causes long-term biochemical changes in the body. These aren’t simple things, and they aren’t “all in your head.” You can’t simply decide to get over them.
  • Studies have shown that the most effective course of treatment for mental illness involves both medication and therapy. Either one by itself is less effective.
  • Therapy is more than just touchy-feely “tell me how you feel.” It also involves learning coping skills to deal with the problems you experience in your life …
  • Often you have to peel away problems in layers. First you deal with one issue, such as difficulty concentrating. Once that’s improved it allows you to see that you have problems with motivation, so you peel that away. That allows you to see that you’re drowsy, so you deal with that next.
  • Most mental illnesses cannot be “cured.” They are lifelong conditions that must be treated.
  • People with a mental illness can sometimes function normally, or almost-normally, such that you aren’t even aware that they have a problem. Or you aren’t aware that the problem is of a serious nature. I’ve been described as a “high functioning” bipolar, which means that I don’t have hallucinations and haven’t had any major mood swings or other bad symptoms in a long time (let’s hear it for modern medicine!). Most people who meet me have no idea that I have a mental illness at all, much less four of them.
  • Mental illnesses are a lot more common than most people think. Odds are that you know several people who have diagnosable mental illnesses.

My series of articles on mental illness in roleplaying addresses a number of these issues. … Many writers want to work with a character that has a mental illness, but because they don’t understand the true nature of mental illnesses they fall back on stereotyping and cliches.

Mental illness can add interesting layers to your writing work, particularly when used subtly or to color a personality without ever being explicitly stated. However, you need to be careful not to abuse it in your writing. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of personality disorders in particular is that they are normal behaviors taken to an abnormal extreme. This is a good thing to remember when working with mental illness in your writing.

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