Let’s Talk Theme: Mental Illness

So, for this blog post, I’m going to talk about one of the major, recurring themes in my work. For those unfamiliar with the literary concept, a theme is usually defined as “an idea that either recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.” When I teach literature classes, I usually define theme as “One of the big questions the writer seeks to answer about what it means to be a human in their particular time and culture.” As a writer, I tell stories that work through multiple themes, but one of the biggest and most common themes I address is mental illness. Let’s talk about why.

Content Warning for this Post and for my Books:

I write dark urban fantasy/paranormal mystery books aimed at an adult audience. As such, my books will deal with some of the big, “hard” topics. Mental illness is one of them. Some of the topics my books contain under this theme are suicidal ideation; trauma responses to sexual assault, abuse, and torture; post traumatic stress disorder; and depression.

My goal is to handle these topics delicately and fairly, but such topics can be upsetting for some readers. Thus, I give this warning.

Why Tackle this Theme?

I tackle this theme for numerous reasons. Mental Illness is still stigmatized throughout the United States and in many other parts of the world. That stigma (and the overall cost of health care) prevents many from seeking treatment. For those who don’t know, my dissertation focused on how the United States’ interpretation of the traditional Indo-European heroic narrative impacts the likelihood of soldiers seeking mental health care for combat-induced PTSD and other conditions. I am aware of the stigma. I have spoken to many who felt constrained by it and the narrative their lives have been placed into, and I have listened as they told stories of how this hurt them. These are stories told by human beings. Human beings should not suffer. Human beings should not feel alone, unloved, and unheard. Yet, many do, and for those with mental illness, the stigma surrounding it and the fear of stigmatization often further isolate them, leading many to refuse treatment.

This often results in statements like “I’m not weak.” “I can handle this.” I should be able to handle this.” “I just need to man/woman up.” “Suck it up. “It’s all in your head.” “Why can’t I just get over it?”

While I won’t tackle each of these statements individually, let me say that mental illness is an illness. It does not make someone weak. The brain (the mind) is an organ in the body; therefore illnesses impacting it should be seen as illnesses impacting the body. They may be “invisible,” but they are real. Seeking help can be scary, but it is not a sign of weakness. This fear of being perceived as weak is a fear I myself have had to overcome and still fight to overcome in my own thoughts.

My own struggle with both mental illness and trauma is a long and ongoing narrative, but I want others who struggle with mental illness to know they are not alone. Others were there for me in my dark moments, and while I can’t be with everyone, my books can reach others. And I hope they help someone.

Similarly, I grew up in a military family. My father has PTSD from his time serving in Vietnam. He also refuses treatment, partly due to the stigma and partly due to his complete distrust of the government. I have distinct memories of my father having flashbacks whenever a tire would go flat, because the sound reminded him of helicopters. This is the same man who informed my pediatrician that I did not need an ADHD diagnosis and treatment; I simply needed “more discipline.” My uncle is a psychologist handling PTSD cases for the U.S. Army at Fort Hood.

Mental Illness Portrayed

Mental illness is not an easy thing to portray in fiction. I don’t have all the answers for how to do it with both accuracy and sensitivity. I have studied the subject, asked sensitivity readers for guidance, and spoken with advocates and others to help guide my language. And still, mistakes happen. The goal is to correct them, learn from them, and become better the next time.

One thing I seek to avoid is the “one and done” portrayal. Mental illness is usually treated not cured. My goal is to present the expression of various symptoms as part of the character’s life, as something that complicates matters, and as a struggle to contend with this part of their being. Some days, the characters succeed in their struggle; some days they do not. Living with a mental illness is no different, in that respect, than living with any physical chronic illness. Sometimes you have good days. Sometimes you have bad days, and the bad days can be hard.

To that end, symptoms and complications appear over multiple books. Why do this instead of showing the impact once and be done with it? There are a couple of reasons. The simplest is the “out of sight; out of mind” principle. If the reader doesn’t see the condition having a continued impact, they may forget the character has this illness. The second is that if the illness no longer manifests through symptoms and episodes, that can give the impression of a “magical cure.” And that’s not realistic.

Also, I want to normalize the treatment process and the importance of social support. I want readers to see my characters take medication when necessary, go to therapy/see a psychologist when necessary, and reach out to loved ones when necessary. I want my characters to have open and honest conversations about mental illness and mental health. Why? Because here in the U.S., talking about mental illness still carries a taboo. Things are improving, but they need to improve more. Fiction provides models for behavior, and I would like to offer that to those in my demographic (as well as those older and younger). Let’s demonstrate how to talk about and give/receive support. Let’s break down the walls of stigma and taboo. Let’s care for each other.

And there are other themes in my work, but this is the most prevalent and probably the most important theme I work with.

Humble Request

If you have the ability and inclination, I ask that you please donate or volunteer with organizations that help those struggling. Two that I donate to are The National Suicide Prevention Hotline and The Trevor Project. Both are important to me and many in my chosen family. If you can, please join me in supporting these causes. If not, please share them with others so others may find help when needed.

Promotional Hype!

My debut novel, Liam’s Doom, is on sale at all major and minor retail outlets from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to Bookshop.org. I request that you support Bookshop.org, as their site supports local and independent bookstores. The eBook is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through my webstore.

The paperback version of Carmilla’s Ghost can be pre-ordered at Amazon, Bookshop.org and at Barnes & Noble. Currently, eBook pre-orders are only available at Amazon and through my webstore.

Also, you can find my serialized prequel novel Blood/Lust on my website. New chapters go live at noon each Sunday!