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Representing Mental Illness by Jaimie N. Schock

Today I would like to welcome guest writer, Jaimie N. Schock. Enjoy!


Writing diverse characters is both fun and important, but it’s essential that your portrayals do it correctly. Writers must avoid tropes and clichés, which can make your representation harmful to the real people who identify with the characters. One of the most misunderstood depictions is that of mental illness. But if you want to include a mentally ill character in your work and you aren’t mentally ill yourself, I’d like to help.

The first thing you should do is look up the symptoms of the illness in question. Even if you think you know what depression, PTSD, or schizophrenia are about, chances are that some of that information came from flawed sources such as TV and movies. Just as you would do with a physical illness, make sure that you know the symptoms and the treatments before you start writing the character.

If you can, find a person who has the illness you wish to portray and ask them about their experiences and symptoms. This will give you an even deeper understanding of what your characters should be like.

Once you have a good handle on the illness, you need to decide which symptoms the character will have, as well as what will happen to the character because of their condition. Many people with mental illness experience negative reactions from others, especially if it is severe, so that’s something to consider. For instance, if your character is experiencing audio hallucinations, chances are that other characters will notice, especially if your mentally ill character reacts to the hallucinations. You can choose to have the other characters be supportive or not. That’s up to you as a writer.

Treatment is another thing to consider. Many mental illnesses would essentially prevent a character from functioning without therapy and/or medication. In most cases, medication is not a cure, but rather something that helps stabilize a person and let them live their lives. It’s important that your character is not magically cured, either by treatment or by outside forces. Just like if you were writing a character with a disability, magical cures are offensive to people who really have the illness/disorder, since no such cures exist for them.

While it’s fine for your main or side characters to have mental illness so long as you’ve researched the conditions, it is generally not okay to have your villains be mentally ill. That would be considered bad representation. Making mental illness overly frightening and something to be hated is the opposite of what a good portrayal looks like. Sure, there are some scary attributes of mental illness, especially to people who do not understand them, but that’s not an excuse to give your villains mental health issues. Just don’t do it. People with mental illness are far more likely to become victims than abusers or attackers.

Some other things to avoid: killing your mentally ill characters, especially in a way that “inspires” the other characters; making the illness inspiring in general; having your mentally ill characters constantly rely on others for even basic needs; writing a character whose mental illness has no effect on their life; and portraying your characters as lazy or weak.

Overall, if you take your time, do your research, and follow the things I’ve outlined, you can write excellent mentally ill characters. Feel free to contact me through my website with any questions you may have.



Jaimie N. Schock is an author, editor, and journalist with more than a decade of professional experience. She has been published in newspapers and magazines and has released her first fiction novels as part of a series called The Talisman War. She is married, living in Northern Virginia with her husband and three cats. She battles PTSD, and is a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community.



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