Shattering Stigmas is an annual blogging event that lasts two weeks. During this fortnight, we’ll be talking about anything and everything mental health related. The aim of these posts are to take away some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, to invite people to open up about their stories, and to help others learn.
I have a book blogging celebrity with me today! Our next guest poster is none other than Cait — book devourer, frantic writer, eater of cake, ruler of dragons, and your queen. She rambles a lot on Paper Fury and also her Twitter page.
Why we need accurate mental health representation in books
One of the best ways to break stigmas surrounding mental health matters is to TALK about them. The world has to stop seeing them as taboo. And a great way to get the conversation started is to throw glitter in someone’s face and…oh oh wait. I’m sorry, haha. Wrong…note cards…that’s for something…else. Excuse me. OK I’m ready let me try again.
One great way to get the conversation started is to read books!
(But keep the glitter as a backup option maybe?)
Books are conversations. They’re discussions and they’re little pockets of information. When they speak a lot of people listen. This is why it’s crushingly important that when they decide to talk about mental health — they have a responsibility to get it right. Not only to put out accurate information but the people they’re representing deserve respect.
You think that would be obvious right? But unfortunately there are a sheer ton of books out there who fall down the landslide of problematic mental health tropes or just fumble around in the dark like they have no freaking clue what they’re talking about.
“OK, Cait,” you say, half your attention on this post and half on eBay where you’re looking up how to buy bulk glitter, “you’re being just a little dramatic. What’s the big deal if it’s just a story? Does it even mean anything?”
My friend, it is a huge deal, and I have some super handy lists to explain what good and bad representation mean.
But before I get to them, I want to raise my hand and say I struggle with my mental health too. So this topic is near and dear to me. I’ve been diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder and depression, and I have obsessive routines and often can’t speak at all in public. I also am on the Autism spectrum, which isn’t a mental illness at all (!) but often comes with a packaged deal of severe anxiety. Books can be empowering and comforting, which is why I’m so passionate about the rep!
Which leads us back in a flurry of glitter to the topic at hand…
BAD REPRESENTATION MEANS…
- Stigmas are promoted that actually really hurt people. If you read a book about a mental health condition you don’t have experience in…you’re trusting what the author says right?!? And if they portray something wrong, it can become fact to us. Like when a book says OCD means a character keeps everything meticulously clean “because that’s what OCD is” … it erases so much about the condition. Then when someone with that condition reads the book, it’s basically like being slapped in the face to realise people don’t understand and you’re being mocked. NOT COOL.
- Erasure. When mental health is badly written, it relies on stereotypes and covers the barest basics of what it is to live with a neurodiverse brain. Look, this isn’t a dance number in the Jungle Book. We ain’t here for the bare necessities. When you skim the top, you get a half complete picture and nothing even makes sense.
- Everything ends in tragedy. Look, having mental health issues often means stuff goes BADLY. Life can suck. We have so much sadness (and I believe we could have a lot less sadness if there weren’t so many harmful stigmas and hushed auras of taboo surrounding mental health) and we might handle our sadness badly. But books seem to think this is an A+ reason to make our lives A HEINOUS ROLLER COASTER OF TRAGEDY. It freaking hurts. Not every character with mental illness needs to end badly. I’m not saying to sugar-coat or lie or always blast rainbows everywhere…because #unrealistic. But I’m saying be thoughtful, sensitive, and stop acting like mental illness is a death sentence.
- Getting help is scorned. Oh wow the amount of books I’ve read where all therapists are evil and medication ruins the characters’ lives. And I’m not saying every therapist is right for their patient! The first one I saw misdiagnosed me an announced I was depressed because I was homeschooled as a child. Insert me blinking rapidly and screaming inside. So I get it! There are sucky therapists out there. But not as often as books make it sound. And medication isn’t right for everybody, but that’s a choice! It shouldn’t be sneered at. Whatever helps and individual = helps. Every time a book treats taking medication like “being a failure”, it’s putting struggling teens at risk. Please do not.
- Cure culture. I don’t agree with cure culture at all, personally. It comes across super painfully in books, too, when you have characters who can’t or won’t be loved with their mental illness. If a character’s arc is about “curing them”, then this is rubbish. Mental illness is often part of a person. Books that say you’re not worth loving or can’t live properly until you’re cured are spitting on people who are different. You CAN live a good life and have a mental illness! You need support, love, and coping strategies…but you don’t have to be cured to be happy.
GOOD REPRESENTATION MEANS…
- You learn! A book = you being in someone else’s shoes! So when mental health is represented accurately, you actually learn what it’s like from that perspective. You cut past the stereotypes and WOW THERE’S A WHOLE PERSON THERE and their thoughts and dreams and neurodiversity are woven together in interesting and complex ways. I’ve learned literally so much about mental health matters from just reading good solid YA books. I know someone with orthorexia and when I came across the condition in a YA book, it actually really helped me understand the person better.
- You also learn about you better. I speak cautiously about self-diagnosing, because we can get it wrong. But when you know something is different about you (and know you need help with it) and then if you read a book sparks you to think “OH WOW THIS IS ME” and go seek further information and help – THEN ISN’T THIS GREAT. Can we take a moment for how good it is that books can help us?! Also knowing you have a condition + reading a book about it = helps you understand why you do things. It’s comforting.
- It helps you know you’re not alone. Often I’ll read a book about a character with depression and they explain a depression-related characteristic and I’ll be like “WAIT. THAT’S PART OF IT?! I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE.” Dude, knowing you’re not alone can literally save lives and it can give such sparks of hope. That book can become a friend and a comfort. Statistics say that 1 in 4 people have some a neurological condition or disorder…but it still usually feels like you’re very alone battling this out. Books with good rep say (a) no you’re not alone, and (b) we understand what you’re going through. Bad rep literally does the opposite and feels like it’s mocking you. See why good rep is so so crucial?? We need books that shout “I GET YOU! I’M LISTENING! I CAN HELP!”
- Remind you that mental health is a spectrum. We don’t all experience it the same way. Books with good rep show you the different sides, different experiences. It’s encouraging as well as just plain interesting. No two people with anxiety will have exactly the same experiences. We’ll relate on a sheer bucket load of stuff, but ultimately how we display or cope or struggle can be so diverse in itself.
- A good story. Good rep in books means you’re telling a needed and good story. No, it doesn’t have to always be happy. Just as it doesn’t always have to be sad. The thing is about HONESTY. It’s about telling true stories, not stereotypes and caricatures. Good rep shows who people really are.
Mental illness can be gnarly and it’s not always happy endings and it’s not a frolic in the daisy fields. But it is real life. And if we smashed some of the stigmas and made it less “shameful” to talk about, I totally think we’d be happier people. You don’t have to be cured to be loved. You don’t to miss out on a good life. You’re pretty frikkin’ awesome how you are and how you get up (even if you can’t do it every day) and keep going (even if some days you need to sit down and cry) and how you have interesting thoughts to contribute to this world. We both deserve good representation in books that KNOWS US and doesn’t reduce us to a box of splintered stereotypes.