Nine things to consider when writing about mental health

Many authors, including me, write about sensitive topics that affect our emotional wellbeing, such as abuse, bullying, etc. However, some writers use these topics as a hook to attract readers only to offend them. This happens mainly if the subject triggers someone who has been through an unfortunate experience. Here are nine things to keep in mind while approaching sensitive topics.

  1. Empathy is key

Authors should empathize with the issue, and it must be evident in their writing; otherwise, readers can find out easily. If the writers have gone through an unfortunate experience themselves or have someone close to them who has, they will better portray their characters’ emotions. If not, authors must feel strongly enough about the topic to write about it. It’s important to avoid using sensitive subjects as only a hook to attract readers and forget about it in the story.

  1. Research, research, research

It’s critical that writers research the topic they are writing, doubly so if the matter is sensitive. Well-researched writing strikes a chord with readers. I recommend that authors look up subjects on the internet and talk to subject matter experts or have experience in facing the problem. When I wrote my short story Rachana’s special gift, I read about lipreading and authenticated my writing with a real lipreader. There are many communities on social media that are ready to help writers with their research.

  1. Keep it real

Whether it is scientific information about the topic or the emotions experienced, the writing must be authentic, even if it is fiction. Only then readers can relate to the characters in your book. In case someone with experience points out that the story seems too far-fetched, listen to their point of view and, if necessary, rewrite the parts that are not convincing. In my first draft of the short-story Rachana’s special gift, my protagonist had lipread complete sentences, which is not possible. I modified it to lipreading sounds such as ‘w,’ and ‘m,’ which are easier to lipread.

  1. Redemption is not romantic

Authors need to stop writing books where the abused character falls in love with the bully. It’s offensive and not romantic, no matter how guilty the abuser feels. Romanticizing such relationships is toxic and must not be encouraged in novels that can negatively impact young minds. It can also trigger and offend real survivors.  

  1. Less labels, please

While keeping it real is essential, authors need not bombard their readers with the terminology they need to look up a dictionary for. Instead, they can portray the character’s actions and emotions that reflect the term. For example, in my book, The So-called Boy Magnet, the female lead has genophobia or the fear of touch as an aftermath of sexual abuse. However, I never say the term in my novel.

Additionally, writers should not mention disorders or diseases unless a real doctor or therapist diagnoses the character with them. If the protagonist is self-diagnosing, authors need to clarify this and discourage readers from trying the same. For instance, if the lead is self-diagnosing depression, another character could chide them asking them to get a real diagnosis. It’s best to focus on symptoms and emotions the protagonist goes through instead of using labels.

  1. No preaching

I don’t like fiction books that preach; there is non-fiction for that. As a reader, I am not a fan of novels with characters who provide each other lectures on do’s and don’ts about something. Instead, I would like to learn why. This point is a personal opinion, but my reader friends advocate it as well. Authors can ‘show’ why their protagonist should or shouldn’t do something by writing a fitting consequence in the scene.

  1. It’s not magic

I vehemently emphasize this one—overcoming a challenging issue is not magic. Love cannot cure trauma. It can help in the healing process but not make it go away. Romance books love to advocate the idea ‘love can move mountains.’ Maybe it can, but instantly restoring a survivor into a pre-abuse state is something that nothing can accomplish. Let’s not give our readers the wrong idea that they need to fall in love to become alright.

  1. Feelings first

I recommend authors focus on their protagonist’s feelings first before delving into the details of incidents. Readers will not be invested in the characters unless they can empathize with their emotions. Lengthy descriptions of unfortunate events without the heartwrenching feelings will mean nothing. Readers should root for your novel’s characters and be a part of their journey.

  1. Light over dark

This point is my personal opinion. I feel it is essential for writers to include an element of hope in the darkest novels. I understand this is debatable, and I have seen many discussions online about whether optimism is necessary at all. However, as a reader affected by books easily, I seek light at the end of a dark tunnel. I’m the type of person who peeks at the ending of a story to see if it is favorable.

What do you keep in mind when writing about sensitive topics? Let me know in the comments.

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