Friday 13 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Discussion: Who Gets to Tell Stories About Mental Illness?

Mental Illness in YA Month

A few weeks back I listened to 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. It's an incredible episode, and I highly recommend you read if you're interested in mental illness in YA and/or have a mental illness yourself. It was really thought provoking, and I took a lot of notes, and this is one of several discussion posts the episode inspired.

So I want to look at who gets to tell stories about characters with mental illness. So, two questions:
  1. Is it ok for people without a mental illness write about characters with mental illness? 
  2. Is it ok for people with a mental write about about a character with a different mental illness they don't have?
When it comes to diverse books and marginalised characters/authors, these kinds of questions crop up a lot, you can just change "mental illness" for another marginalisation. There are arguments on both sides. There are those who think you should "stay in your lane", but also those who think, if you put in the research and do the work, and get sensitivity readers, and try to make your story as accurate as possible, who is anyone tell someone what they can and can't write? There are also arguments regarding taking someone's seat at the table. There are lots of arguments for and against, and we've heard a lot of them before. But this Mental Health episode really got me thinking, and Tom Pollock made a really good point about researching mental illness, and it was you can't research what it feels like to have a mental illness, what it feels like to struggle with your mental illness.

There is only so much research can tell you. You can learn all you can about a mental illness, but you're never going to find in a non-fiction book exactly what it feels like. It can be hard enough as it is, for example, for me to try and put into words the physical experience of having a panic attack, and what is going through my head when I'm anxious - not the thoughts themselves, but the feelings, and what it feels like, on the odd occasion it happens*, to have thoughts rushing through my head and feeling overwhelmed - and this is something I have been through. How accurate is someone who has never experienced mental illness - or has never experienced the particular mental illness they're writing about, even if they have another one - going to be when it comes to trying to describe what it feels like in the moment when their mental illness is affecting them and they're struggling?

I've also read - and I can't remember where, I've read so many things in the lead up to this event - that you have to expand on feelings that all people feel; expand on "normal" anxiety, expand on "normal" sadness or misery for depression, expand upon "normal" excitement and enthusiasm for mania, and so on. But I'm not quite sure that would be enough to be accurate. The anxiety I experienced before I developed anxiety as a mental illness are very different. They're related, sure, but like how a house cat is related to a lion or a tiger. I don't think you could expand on the anxiety everyone feels and get an accurate representation of anxiety as a mental illness.

At the same time, we only know if an author is writing from their own experience if they're open about the fact they a mental illness. If they're not open about it, we won't know that their story is #OwnVoices. And we definitely don't want to start telling authors they have to be open about things that are personal to them. So we can't necessarily say "this representation of X mental illness isn't going to be accurate, because the author doesn't have a mental illness," because they might do!

And then there's the issue of how all our experiences of mental illness are nuanced, complex and subjective. No two people who have anxiety are going to experience their anxiety in the same way. So it's not so much, "This isn't accurate," it's more, "This isn't reflective of my personal experience - but it may be of someone else's."

So unless something is very obviously harmful and problematic, can we actually criticise or question something that can be so nuanced, complex and subjective for each individual person, or question the author's authority to write about it?

So maybe it's not something we, as readers, should question, maybe, but what about the authors themselves? They're the ones who sit down to write these stories; if they don't have a/this particular mental illness, is it ok to put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper?

I would absolutely love to hear what you think! Please do join the conversation in the comments:

*My anxiety affects me more of a subconscious level, so I don't often experience the illogical, spiralling thoughts very often. There will be more on my experience of my anxiety later in the month in the discussion post On Looking For Representation in YA Novels Featuring Mental Illness on 20th July.

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  1. Ah yes, this is one discussion that really has no right/wrong answer for sure! I personally believe there's room for non-ownvoices dialogues for marginalised identities. Like one of my most favourite and accurate autism reps has been by a neurotypical author! And I also feel like the "you can't write it if you haven't lived it" can translate to "you can't possibly relate or empathise to that experience"...which feels like saying someone who's mentally ill can't be understood by someone who's not!? I find that really disheartening. Plus books are something that SHOULD help us live outside our own experience. It's just got to be written right and by authors who are listening and not arrogant enough to write something they haven't lived without asking for help from those who have lived it.

    All that saying, I've read WAY too much bad rep and there are so many ways to mess it up. We definitely need lots of research, more sensitivity readers, and plenty of listening!

  2. I think if the author does careful research and uses sensitivity readers for their early reads, they could successfully write a character with mental illness. It also depends on the perspective they choose to write the story from. I feel like I read a good amount of mental illness books, which are from the perspective of the family members/friends. Then, they may have lived it.

    1. Those books are great books, but at the same time, they're not about the character and their experience, and I think those books are more important. People need to see themselves represented, not only their families. I think we need both, but, first, more of characters with mental illness.

      But I do agree, it can be done as long as the authors put the work in.

  3. I agree that mental health books can be written by non-ownvoices authors, but it's definitely trickier to get it right. Really talking to people who have experienced the illness makes a big difference. You can't necessarily know yourself how something might feel, but you can talk to others and learn from their experiences. And, of course, we do have to realize that not everyone experiences a mental illness in the same way.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction