Why We Need to Write About Mental Illness
Last Monday I was lying in bed, somewhere between awake and asleep. I had to get up in half an hour, but my boyfriend goes to work earlier than me, and always comes in to say goodbye before he leaves. I opened my eyes and smiled. ‘Robin William’s died,’ he said.
‘What?’ This revelation woke me up a little.
‘He committed suicide.’
I stared at him blankly. After he’d gone to work, I read some things through on the internet. Robin Williams had had depression. He’d been an addict. He’d suffered most of his life. These facts have haunted me since I discovered them last week. Someone so talented, so funny, so seemingly happy was in such a bad place that he decided to take his own life.
Since then, there’s been a barrage of posts and tweets about mental illness. They’ve ranged from explaining what it’s like to live with depression, to how to talk to people about it, to what to do if you’re struggling with it. Many of these are sensitive, well-written and worth reading.
The big mistake I made was thinking that happiness is the default position. Whereas it’s just one of the countless states of mind we endure. I’ve kind of realised life is meant to be tough and everybody is in psychic and spiritual discomfort of some sort and has a burden to carry.
– Marian Keyes to The Guardian in 2013.
Unfortunately, it’s taken the death of such a prominent comedian for this to happen. A lot of comedians suffer from depression or a similar illness (such as bipolar disorder), including Stephen Fry, Russell Brand and Ellen DeGeneres. Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Frank Bruno and Marian Keyes also had/have depression. Many talented, successful people have a mental illness (or more than one, since they’re often linked together, like anxiety and depression). A more positive effects of a mental illness is that it can help you think in a different way to other people, and make you more creative. Very few people ever talk about this positive side effect, or how many prominent people suffered from a mental illness and continued to do well in life.
One of the classes in the third year of my undergraduate degree was Writing and Responsibility. It asked if we, as writers, have a responsibility above that of simply entertainers. In some countries — even in this country — writers have been put in prison for being a voice for those that can’t speak out for themselves. However, in the twenty first century, those of us in the Western World are lucky enough to be able to say pretty much what we want and not be persecuted for it. (Unless you’re a troll. This rule doesn’t count for trolls.)
That’s why it’s so important to write about it not just in the wake of Robin Williams’s death, but to keep writing about mental illness.
The more we write about mental illness, the more people we reach. The more people we reach, the more people it’s possible to save.
You see, no matter how many pieces are written about depression, anxiety, stress, bioplar disorder, anorexia nervosa or any other mental illness, there are always going to be people that don’t see it, and that still feel alone.
We, as writers, have a voice that has the potential to be stronger, more powerful, and more heard than anyone else’s. We must use this power to reach as many people as possible, and to give a voice to those that feel voiceless. In doing this, we give them back the power they feel they’ve lost. We help to make them realise that there’s nothing wrong with them, and that it’s ok to ask for help.
If you know someone that suffers from depression, don’t pity them. Don’t treat them like there’s something wrong with them. Give them a hug, a smile, and a slice of cake (or their equivalent of cake). Give them love, because that’s what they feel they lack. Don’t take it personally that they feel alone — it’s got nothing to do with you, it’s the chemicals in their brain making them feel that way. You could be the kindest, most amazing person in the world, but depression will make them feel like they don’t deserve you. That’s never going to go away. Reassure them that you’re not going anywhere. Stick by them. Be strong. Give them reasons to trust you, and they will let you in. Just be patient.
If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.
Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.
– Stephen Fry
Robin Williams’s death truly made it hit home for me that depression is a lifelong illness. Even if a person seems ok, that doesn’t mean that those thoughts aren’t still there; they just might be controlling them better than usual. It doesn’t matter how good things may seem to be going, that darkness will always be there (Robin Williams is a prime example of this).
It doesn’t matter how much I want it to go away, or want to hide it from the outside world, it’s a part of me, and once I learn to accept that, the people around me will, too. I said it loud and proud from a young age that I was a writer, and because of that, nobody could bully me for it. If those of us with mental illnesses can do that too (yes, I know it’s hard and easier said than done) it helps with the stigma. People can only hurt you for something that you are afraid or ashamed of. I’m living proof of that, and if it weren’t the case, I wouldn’t have studied Creative Writing, have set up this website, or be working on an anthology with my fellow writers.
A quarter of people will suffer from some kind of mental illness at some point in their life.
If you’re someone with a mental illness, there will always be someone that’s insensitive and lacks understanding. ‘What do you have to be depressed about?’ is one of the most common questions. There’s nothing you can do about people like this. There are plenty of studies done into what causes different mental illnesses, and if that’s not good enough for them then nothing ever will be. You don’t need people like that in your life. If you can’t avoid people like this, at least you can prove to them that you still manage to be a fully-functioning human being and can give them plenty of evidence to prove that it’s not ‘all in your head’. There’s also plenty of proof that the symptoms of mental illness aren’t just psychological.
So, fellow writers, whether you have a mental illness or not, remember that it’s important to keep writing about mental illness. Also remember that you should do so accurately — if you don’t have a particular mental illness, do your research before you write about it. Don’t be like some TV shows and make the problem magically disappear because it’s no longer a useful storyline. Handle it with accuracy and empathy, and it will open the eyes of your audience and make those already struggling feel less alienated. It could change someone’s life. Or save it.
We have a duty as writers — poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, scriptwriters and every other type of writer — to be informants and educators. Use the power you’ve been given to assist, educate and entertain, because that’s what will end the stigma of mental illness.