Mental Health Awareness Through Fiction

clip art of a brain on a book
Image composited by author from Creative Commons images.

It’s Mental Health Awareness month. I honestly spend most of my time aware of mental health—it’s kind of been a hobby of mine since I was a depressed teenager. I became fascinated by what makes people tick. What makes people feel the way they feel? What makes ordinary thoughts and feelings cross the line into pathology? I sought the answers to my questions in the one place I could actually get inside the minds of other people: in stories.

When one attempts to apply psychology to fictional characters on the internet, somebody always pops up to say, “But characters are made up! The author can make them do or say whatever! You can’t possibly fit real psychology into their thoughts and actions!” Which does a major disservice to all the great authors out there. A good character is psychologically true. A reader can tell a true character from a plot device. True characters have complex emotions, motivations, a life outside of the immediate plot: in short, psychology. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a fictional character knows that true characters work exactly the way real people do.

But plot devices are stereotypes that are indeed dropped in by the author to do whatever the author needs them to do, and ironically, they’re the ones more likely to be forced to fit some psychological phenomenon. Plot device characters are their labels. I come back to my troubles with labels over and over in my writing, and the tendency to reduce people, whether real or fictional, to their labels is my biggest gripe. In fiction, such characters become tokens: the Token Bully, the Token Autistic kid, the Token Wise Native, the Token Religious Prude, the Token Racial Minority. They may check all the boxes of whatever psychological or social issue they represent, but they aren’t whole people, and therefore, yes, they don’t have psychology. But this isn’t good writing, and I doubt anyone’s ever fallen in love with one of these “characters.”

But labels, right. Even with the danger of being reduced to a label, sometimes the label is the only way people will get it. You hear this in discussions of what “representation” in media means. Some people say representation only counts if it’s outright labeled. For a common example that happens to tie nicely with the latter part of this post, Dumbledore is considered by many to be a “failure at representation” as a gay man because J.K. Rowling only said it outright in an interview after the fact. When I first heard that tidbit of gossip, I honestly said, rather boredly, “Oh, I knew that already.” She had written him as gay, and I, with several close gay friends, had picked it up subconsciously. But because it was not explicitly stated, he couldn’t be a role model for people who don’t have representation in their real lives, to see a character who was incidentally a gay man in action, to say, “Aha, here is a gay man! He is not a pedophile like I was always led to believe, but an intelligent yet faulty leader! An ordinary though extraordinary person! Good thing I have this example of a gay man to challenge my previously held assumptions about that label!” So yes, I understand this argument, that for people to truly understand that not everyone fits the Assumed Narrative, people are going to have to be made aware of it outright.

But on the other hand, real life isn’t that cut and dry. Some differences between people are immediately obvious, but others, not so much. In the case of mental health, the differences are almost always invisible. It can be easy to separate the labels of mental health issues from the real people they affect. “Awareness” campaigns have a bad habit of turning real people into tokens, just like bad writers do with characters. “This is what it’s like to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder! This is someone with schizophrenia! This person went crazy and killed themselves! Pity them and throw all your money at these organizations who will save these people!” No wonder GeekMom K doesn’t want your “Autism Awareness” anymore. It’s time for Autism Acceptance, she says. See the complete real person me, not the label.

Take “Awareness” to a Deeper Level

It’s the tokenizing nature of “Awareness” campaigns that is the problem. But I would argue that to fix it, more awareness is needed, not less. Personal awareness. Opening up one’s own perception to see that these issues, rather than being mysterious pathologies afflicting some slightly-inhuman few, are entwined in the lives of the real people all around us. And mental health is an issue that affects everyone.

The statistic floating around that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US will experience mental illness in a given year should be enough to make that clear: unless you are a hermit, you are bound to be interacting with someone with mental illness, if you are not that person yourself (and if you are a hermit, that’s probably affecting your mental health in some way or another anyway). But this stat itself refers just to the numbers within a given year–while some of those millions of individuals are dealing with chronic illnesses and are therefore always included in this count, others are dealing with situational disorders that might be present some years but not others. Which brings the total number of people who will experience mental illness over the course of their entire lives even higher. And that’s also not counting children, whose mental illnesses will even more commonly be dismissed as the child just being melodramatic or obstinate… though they will, hopefully, eventually be counted when they most likely become an adult with mental illness.

And that’s mental illness—a psychological issue that causes significant interference in a person’s day to day life. Mental health includes issues that cause only minor and fleeting interference in one’s life, like phobias, or affect one’s emotions and beliefs in not-necessarily-bad ways, like relationships, or deal with simply the day to day stresses of life. Everyone ought to be aware of their mental health even if they’re not prone to mental illness, like everyone ought to brush their teeth even if they don’t need orthodontics. It can keep everyday stressors from evolving into significant issues and makes it easier to catch those issues when they do.

This brings me back to practicing on fictional characters, whether or not their labels are named outright. If you closely observe the inner workings of a character, and tie it to that character’s actions, you may be better able to recognize the same patterns of behavior in the real people whose thoughts you can’t read directly, or in someone you’re a little too close to think objectively about, like yourself.

My kids and I are reading Order of the Phoenix together right now. This is my personal favorite Harry Potter book, but there’s no denying Harry has serious anger issues in it, which annoys many people. But honestly, can you blame him? He was recently forced to participate, with his own blood, in an evil occult ritual that brought his parents’ murderer back to life, in the process suffering physical torture, witnessing the murder of someone he had a good but conflicted relationship with (upping the guilt level), and resurrecting memories of people he could have really used some time to work through. This is one serious trauma!* Anyone who was really thinking about Harry’s health would have, at the very least, gotten him counseling. Instead they sent him back to stay with his abusive relatives for a month while refusing to let him know what was happening or answer any of his questions, advised him not to anger the people trying to gaslight him about it, and on top of all that, he’s fifteen, which is just a messed up age for anybody to be, regardless of recent trauma. Is it any wonder he’s got a bit of a short fuse this year?

Nobody says, “Order of the Phoenix is the story of a teenager with PTSD forced to navigate an extremely triggering school situation without therapy.” That turns it into, gross, an Issues book, and Harry into a token meant to teach the reader about PTSD. No, this is the story of a group of magical kids preparing themselves to face a rising evil the adults in their lives are not willing to prepare them for. It’s a much bigger and, frankly, more exciting story than simply focusing on the mental health of one of those kids. And it leaves readers free to react to Harry not as a label, but as a person. Unfortunately, that means some people will react to the kid with, “I cannot STAND Harry in that book. He is so whiny and self-centered with all his tantrum-throwing!”

And that is utterly realistic.

People don’t wear their labels like name tags, allowing you to adjust your judgments of them accordingly. You’ve got to be aware of the signs that someone is dealing with something tougher than their surface reactions show. This way, instead of writing them off as irrational and impossible to deal with, you can say, “Hold up, there’s something else going on here. Are you okay? Can I help you find help?”

You’ve got to make mental health an accepted part of discussion, so that when issues arise, we can face and then deal with them.

It’s not necessary to know the exact specific label someone has if only you recognize that something mental health related is going on, and find the experts who can pinpoint the specific label and the therapies to go with it. Besides, sometimes not having labels allows a more broadly empathic read. My 11-year-old, who has dealt with his own anger issues, actually smiled as we read about some of Harry’s irrational explosions. “He’s like me,” he said. My son does not have PTSD. He has primarily-hereditary neurotransmitter imbalances (ADHD and depression). But he could still see himself in Harry, and it sparked an interesting conversation about what Harry or his friends could have done differently. Maybe he could have outright asked for help. Maybe Ron or Hermione could have told a trusted adult how worried they were about their friend. Maybe some of those adults could have paid more attention to how he was holding up in the first place. Maybe he could have worked out a plan for facing those inevitable triggers, if someone had bothered to notice he needed help.

Learning to Recognize the Differences Between Neurodivergency and Mental Illness

When I first read Order of the Phoenix, I had an excited bit of self-recognition regarding an entirely different character. I was 25 and about to be married, but meeting that “Loony” 14-year-old space-case with the long dirty-blonde hair on the Hogwarts Express made me hug the book with joy and squeal to myself, “I am finally going to Hogwarts! There I am at Hogwarts!” Sure, I’d identified with Hermione before, to an extent, but Luna Lovegood was something else altogether. I’d always felt, somewhat subconsciously, that something about me just didn’t make me cut out to be the hero of a story. I was too… not there, seemed to be the best way to describe it. But meeting Luna was like seeing myself in a story from the outside, seeing how I really would fit in these adventures, and I relished it.

A few weeks ago I saw someone tweet J.K. Rowling a thank you for giving, through Luna, autistic girls everywhere some representation at Hogwarts. I have never identified as autistic, not even “mildly” autistic or “high-functioning” autistic. That was a term reserved for people like my brother, who still lives with our parents at the age of 30 because he never will be likely to live on his own. I don’t feel like I have the right to it, even as it becomes more obvious all the time, through, you know, awareness campaigns about autism in girls**, that I am on the spectrum after all. This time I’ve been reading Order of the Phoenix with that tweet simmering in my brain. “Huh,” I keep thinking. “She IS autistic. It’s obvious now that you mention it.” I don’t know that I would have been able to identify so instantly if Luna had been outright introduced as autistic, though. Somehow if Ginny had introduced her as “autistic” instead of “loony,” it might have been more polite, but it would also have given her a touch of clinical distance, and I might not have felt as free to identify with her. If Luna had been a stereotype meant to portray The Label, she wouldn’t have been a person. A person like me. Who might just be unstereotypically-presenting autistic.

Now, neurodivergencies are not synonymous with mental illness. The first is defined by being simply different, the latter defined, as I said, by significant interference in a person’s day to day life. Luna is perfectly content to live in her own version of reality (though she would like her shoes back by the end of the term), so even though she is called “Loony,” she’s not mentally ill. But she could be. Would she or her loved ones be able to tell the difference if it came up? Would you? Part of mental health awareness is being able to tell the difference between “different” and “harmful.” It’s absolutely possible to be neurodivergent without being mentally ill. But neurodivergencies do often incorporate disorders—which, like mental illnesses, significantly interfere with day to day life. Someone with an executive dysfunction will need to learn strategies to keep on task just like someone with an artificial limb will need to learn how to use it. A paraplegic who needs a scooter to get around may be perfectly healthy, physically, and an autistic girl called “Loony” by her classmates may be perfectly healthy, mentally.

Luna’s lucky, though. Most people don’t handle constant bullying that blithely. Neurodivergent folks are prone to actual mental illnesses just by struggling and failing to deal with their divergencies, or to meet the expectations of those who don’t understand their needs. This is why most of the women I talked to who were diagnosed with ADHD or other executive function disorders as adults had developed depression or anxiety disorders before they knew why. We kept trying to live like people without the same needs as ours, only to meet with inevitable failure. We were trying to fix the wrong things.

Maybe that’s the secret to mental health awareness—really noticing and responding to the fact that everyone’s needs are different. Understanding that one thing one person can do without thinking can be a source of great stress for someone else. Being aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and at the same time never shaming a person for their quirks, but supporting them. And maybe this whole article is just a more-specific way of saying what studies have been saying for awhile: reading stories increases empathy. Maybe the secret to mental health awareness is just remembering to empathize.


*When we finally got to this part in Goblet of Fire, me with much trepidation and warning, my kids simply responded, “It wasn’t THAT scary.” It’s possible my kids are sociopaths.
+ But now I’m looking ahead to all the deaths in Deathly Hallows and thinking we need to wait yet again…
+ Yes, I realize this is an actual mental health term that I am using rather flippantly, but it’s a perfectly accurate, though hyperbolic, description in this case, anyway.

**Sorry, K, I know it’s ANTI-“awareness” campaign, but it still serves the function of awareness boosting, particularly for people like me who have struggled to recognize it/know how to label it in themselves!