The Importance of Mental Health Research When writing Fiction

I’ve mentioned before that I believe we’re all psychologists at heart. The study of the human psyche fascinates us all because it gives us a better understanding of ourselves, but also everyone around us (friend and foe!). So today I have the pleasure of introducing another guest post from a fellow writer. Jillian spent countless hours researching the psychological disorders that she has incorporated into her script writing, so has some valuable information to share on why this is important and what it can mean for your stories. Thanks, Jillian!

There is no shortage of movies or books that deal with mental health issues. Sometimes the screenwriters or authors get it right and do a wonderful job and sometimes the portrayals of the characters are unrealistic or even absurd; think Jennifer Lawrence and Bradly Cooper in “Silver Lining Playbook” where both characters have some form of mental health problems. However, the movie would have you believe that because the two of them are in love by the end of the movie, it will “cure” mental illness. It doesn’t. Still, “Silver Lining Playbook,” which is based on the memoir by Matthew Quick, is one of the better movies that deals with the complexity of mental illnesses. However, there are far too many books and movies that do a poor job.

As a screenwriter I am drawn to characters who are dealing with tough issues. My movie, “A Sense of Purpose: Fighting For Our Lives,” which I recently completed, focuses on sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, I am writing a screenplay about a woman who has dissociative identity disorder. Any writer who deals with mental illness in their story, if you aren’t an expert in this field take your time and do extensive research so your book will be accurate.

Mental Illness Stigma

The World Health Organization stated in a report that “One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions.”

Although so many people have some form of mental illness it is still a difficult subject to include in a movie or a book because there is so much misunderstanding and stigma that comes with the topic of mental health diseases. Many people who suffer from mental illness are often afraid to discuss the topic because of negative stereotypes, fear and misinformation because the public has the misconception that every person who has a mental health condition is violent, suicidal, or hears voices. This is certainly not the case. Most people who have some form of a mental illness do live very productive lives.

Adding a character to your story that has a mental illness can be off-putting to readers or audiences, which is another reason why it is important that movies or books that deal with this topic get it right. Since mental illness does affect millions of people it’s definitely a relatable theme that can work well in a story as long as it is presented clearly and thorough research has been done.

Don’t Half Ass on Research

Unfortunately, mental health issues are often portrayed on-screen and in books by writers who are too lazy to do the research necessary to make their work competent. As a writer you want to stay away from depicting your character as one dimensional. You want to make sure the character’s illness is accurate and doesn’t take the easy way out by having negative stereotypes. Another thing to avoid, don’t make your story feel manipulative, over-the-top or hackneyed.

As a writer, whatever form of mental illness you decide to focus on in your story make sure it comes across as authentic, realistic, and fresh. Therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists or those who actually live with a mental illness will tear your writing apart if it isn’t precise.

Writing Great Characters Who Has Mental Illness

When writing your novel, you want to show how your character deals with the highs and lows of having a mental illness. What is his backstory? What incident happened that caused the mental condition? How does the character’s mental health affect his family, spouse, children, siblings, employers, employees, and friends.

You want to write empathetic and believable characters along with strong a plot device. Leave out worthless exploitation, cookie cutter characters and cheesy dialogue, especially coming from a mental health worker, e.g. “Calm down now. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

When you do extensive research you will come up with so many ideas, problems, and solutions you probably never thought about which will make your writing richer. Besides the research, the most important thing you can do is craft a story that will help readers know and care about these characters not as people with mental health issues, but simply as people.

Books and Movies That Showcase Mental Illness

There are many ways you can do research on mental health. Read text books on the topic, read novels and watch movies that cover the subject well, (see list below), conduct interviews with mental health care professionals, if you know anyone who have a mental illness interview that person, and read on-line articles.

The bottom line is psychological illnesses are incredibly complex, so you never want to guess and think people won’t notice because they will.

Some novels that do a great job with mental health illness:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (pen name: Hannah Green)

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Impossible Knife of Memory – Laurie Halse Anderson

Some movies that do a great job with mental health illness:

Ordinary People (based on Judith Guest’s book)

Benny and Joon

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The Hours (inspired by the book Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf)

Black Swan

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Read these books and check out these movies. You can even go to this movie link (http://script-o-rama.com/table.shtml) and read some of the scripts. Another great form of research.

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About Jillian Bullock

Jillian Bullock is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal newspaper. She is also an award winning filmmaker, professional speaker and author. Her memoir, HERE I STAND, was published in 2012. She completed her latest movie, “A Sense of Purpose: Fighting For Our Lives,” in 2017.  www.jbullockenterprises.com

Check out my guest post on fellow writing blog Aliventures?

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Writing (and all it’s associated tasks, like researching!) require passion and perseverance. Check out three ways you can improve (you’re probably already doing some of them!) yours 🙂

Check it out HERE

6 comments

  1. Wonderful post! I am not a mental health professional and I spent several years researching personality disorders and bipolar mood disorder attempting to understand someone I felt obliged to help. The outcome was writing my novel, The Sleeping Serpent about a yoga master. The research was enlightening and although I was unable to stabilize or help my friend, I learned a great deal that I hope will help others who read my story. Thank you Tamar for always having brilliant articles and essays on your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Luna! I think the most in-depth research is prompted by personal experience, which always adds a layer of understanding (and therefore authenticity). Personality disorders are known for their resistance to treatment/intervention (generally because the individual is unable to acknowledge there is an issue), so I’m sorry to hear you couldn’t help your friend, but know that you were a good friend for trying.
    Talk soon, Tamar.

    Like

  3. I am a mental health professional and find your post very interesting. Even though we have knowledge of the subject, the research helps provide more information for the reader so that they have a clearer idea of what we are talking about. I’m glad I found your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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