Saturday 28 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Discussion: The Responsibilities of Authors With and/or Writing About Mental Illness

Mental Illness in YA Month

This is the third post which was inspired by young adult podcast YA Oughta's Mental Health episode, which featured Lydia Ruffles and Tom Pollock in conversation with Chloe Seager and Katherine Dunn, in which they talked about writing about mental illness, representation, and many other things. One of the things they talked about that I'd like to discuss is, is there any responsibility for the author
  1. Who has a mental illness to write about it?
  2. Who writes about a character who has a mental illness to name the diagnosis?
Let's look at the first question first. Do authors have a responsibility to write about their mental illness?

On the one hand, writing about your own mental illness can do a lot of good. The author is providing #OwnVoices representation, which is awesome. Although, as discussed before in Who Gets to Tell Stories About Mental Illness?, we know not everyone is going to have the same experience of the same mental illness, there's still the acknowledgement that the author knows what they're talking about. Also, by writing from a place of knowledge and understanding, their novel can fight against mental illness stigma: This book shows what having this mental illness can actually be like - see, we're not dangerous, we're not making it up, we're not attention seeking, we're not drama queens.

And yet, not all authors who have a mental illness will necessarily be open about their mental illness publicly, and perhaps they want to keep it that way. Sure, they don't have to claim an #OwnVoices novel is #OwnVoices, but maybe they'd rather not have questions asked of them about whether or not they have a mental illness by even writing about it. Also, living with a mental illness can be really hard and difficult, and not all authors are going to want to write about that. Living with it is hard enough, perhaps writing about it is something they should steer clear of for their own wellbeing. OR maybe not, maybe it's just hard and they don't want to go there. I can imagine it being very emotional and painful writing your mental illness into a character, and perhaps authors simply don't want to have to deal with that. Either way, whether authors are open about their mental illness or not, no-one should be forced to write about anything.

Next question: They have written about a character who has a mental illness: should they name that mental illness? Use the label/diagnosis? Is it an author's responsibility to teach readers about mental illness?

On the one hand, if mental illness isn't discussed at all, readers without mental illness, or the character's specific mental illness, could come away being confused, having not understood what's been going on, or completely miss it. Don't authors want to teach those readers who may misunderstand something about mental illness, or this particular mental illness specifically?

There's also the possibility that characters may misjudge a character. Even though there are labels, Lydia Ruffles mentioned some reviews didn't quite get that how Lux behaved in The Taste of Blue Light was because of her PTSD, and talks about how she, as an author, didn't get it across well enough for those readers.

Also, giving diagnoses and labels helps to fight stigma, because readers can understand what is happening AND like a character with mental illness through reading, rather than judging people with mental illness automatically, without empathy.

On the other hand, is there a danger, with labels and diagnoses, that it comes across as, "This is what this mental illness is, this is the experience, these are the symptoms."? Everyone's experience of anxiety, for example, is nuanced, complex and subjective, so no two people's experiences are going to look the same. Are books forcing an idea of what a specific mental illness looks like by giving a label/diagnosis? Could labels/diagnoses in books make readers without mental illness reject the idea that someone they know has a specific mental illness, because their experience doesn't look like the experience of a character in a book? Could an undiagnosed person be put off seeking help because the character's experience in the book doesn't look like their own, so they can't possibly have the mental illness the character has, so they don't need help?

Tom Pollock made a really great point in the podcast episode; labels can sometimes be a barrier when it comes to people admit that they have the same symptoms as a character. For example, eating disorders are seen to be girl's/women's mental illness, so a boy reading a book with a girl who has anorexia may deny he has similar symptoms, because having an eating disorder would be emasculating, and therefore not seek help.

It was also discussed how labels/diagnoses can be unhelpful for those with mental illness. Some mental illnesses get a pretty bad rap with a lot of stigma surrounding them. When diagnosed with those specific mental illnesses, those diagnosed know things are going to be hard for them. So perhaps, for some people, it would be better for them not to know their diagnosis. And if that is the case for the character, then why would the author name it? See Are We All Lemmings & Snowflakes? by Holly Bourne for an example of a character, Olive, who doesn't want to know their mental illness:
'"I mean, obviously I have issues. Because I'm here and all. But I don't want a label on me in case I use it as an excuse for not trying to get better, or for just being a dick or..." Everyone really is staring. Oh God, have I offended them? "I's just not for me." I try to smile. "But, whatever works for everyone else is great." (p88-89)*
And when a psychiatrist accidentally tells her, not knowing she doesn't want to know:
'I only remember blackness and crying and the words.[Redacted]. [Redacted]. [Redacted].
A label. A diagnosis. Who I am boiled down to a catchy title that will probably be called something else in fifty years time because eventually, with time, all titles get politically incorrect.' (p210-211)*
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman - a book where a diagnosis isn't given - says something really interesting when it comes to labels and diagnoses:
'There are many things I don't understand, but there's one thing I know: There is no such thing as a "correct" diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catchphrases for various collections of symptoms.
Schizophrenia, schizoaffective, bipolar I, bipolar II, major depression, psychotic depression, obsessive/compulsive, and on and on. The labels mean nothing, because no two cases are ever exactly alike. Everyone presents differently, and responds to meds differently, and no prognosis can truly be predicted.
We are, however, creatures of containment. We want all things in life packed into boxes that we can label. But just because we have the ability to label it, doesn't mean we really know what's in the box.
It's kind of like religion. It gives us comfort to believe we have defined something that is, by its very nature, indefinable. As to whether or not we've gotten it right, well, it's all a matter of faith.'
So that's another reason for an author not giving a specific label or diagnosis.

And then there are also the stories that take place before the character receives help for what they're going through. Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith is an example of one of these books, that shows how the character, Kiri's mental illness manifests and what her symptoms are, before realising something's not quite right, and she needs help.

I don't think there is a responsibility on the author either way in this case. There are arguments both for and against giving labels and diagnoses, and I don't think there is a right answer. It all depends on the story being told, and the characters, in my opinion.

Before I end, I just want to share two quotes from the podcast about labels and diagnoses:

"Name the beast, but know the beast looks and feels different to everyone" - Lydia Ruffles.

"I think of a label as like a lighthouse. Like, it helps you navigate, but you don't want to steer right into it." - Tom Pollock.

What are your thoughts, should authors write about their own mental illness? Should authors name the mental illness, give the diagnosis?

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  1. I'm really pro-label. I respect people who aren't, but for me, I think it firstly helps break down stigmas (when it's really good rep!) and secondly can actually give readers something to research!? Like it's WAY easier to type into google "what are OCD symptoms" and start getting answers --> then help. Instead of reading a book you relate to and then it just saying "this is a mental illness" and you still having no idea? Like I struggled with that with John Green's Turtles All The Way Down. lt was SUCH good anxiety rep + ownvoices OCD, which he was open about saying in interviews...but the actual term "OCD" wasn't mentioned on page. I personally felt it would've been an amazing way to start deconstructing all the harmful stereotypes people think about OCD if you give them a realistic version to look at that isn't just someone organising their wardrobe by colour and washing their hands, you know?

    I also hate seeing reviews were readers call a character annoying/whiny/stupid etc etc because the book isn't properly explaining they're mentally ill. Or disabled. And it's like...I feel it's a missed opportunity? Some people need it spelled out. (Which isn't necessarily right or fair. Like it sucks that you have to say "give this character a break tHEY'RE DEPRESSED" for people to actually listen and have empathy.

    And of course a label is a HUGE thing and people vary so much within it!! I definitely hate when people act like there's only "one" way to have a mental illness. Sheeesh.

    Totally rambling!😂I enjoyed your thoughts on this!

  2. As a mom of three kids with various "issues," I know that diagnosis isn't always cut and dry or easy, so I tend to lean toward writing characters without labels. But I can definitely see the arguments for naming a mental illness, especially if it's the focus of the book.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction