Updated: Mar 27
Why I Write About Mental Illness
Characters with mental illness show up frequently in my work. I write primarily for a young adult audience, and many of my young adult characters have faced issues such as substance abuse (their own or a parent’s), depression, or PTSD.
Major subplots in Reinventing Hannah involve Hannah trying to overcome trauma related to having been sexually assaulted and her fear that she has inherited her mom’s bipolar disorder, and that backstory was so compelling to me that I’ve written a companion short story about six-year-old Hannah’s attempt to understand her mother’s illness. I’ve also addressed some of these issues in the fanfiction that I write daily, and many of the characters I write about are either in therapy or reluctant to ask for that kind of help even though they need it.
With all the issues young adults could be facing in my stories, why do I choose to focus on mental illness? There are a number of reasons.
1. My own struggles with mental illness have motivated me to help others who are suffering.
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety on and off since I was a teenager myself. Some of my issues stemmed from being transgender and not being able to express my gender identity, while others had to do with accidents of family dynamics, self-esteem issues, and having been bullied a lot as a kid.
In short, I was a lonely, depressed kid who didn’t know how to be other than I was and other than one teacher who got annoyed with me constantly turning to her for help, I had no one I trusted with my pain. My unresolved mental health issues contributed to some poor decisions I made in my early 20s -- notably, getting into unhealthy and sometimes abusive relationships, spending a lot of money I didn’t have, and working at jobs I was overqualified for that didn’t pay enough -- and it wasn’t until my 30s that I began to figure things out.
Every writer puts some of their real story into the stories they write, but for me it goes deeper than that. I ended up with a lot of regrets because I couldn’t figure life out and I’d like to help other people figure it out sooner. (That’s why I also do life coaching in addition to writing). I want my readers to know that they’re not alone, that there’s hope no matter how hard their lives are, and that there are adults who care and will be willing to help if they find the courage to tell them what’s going on with them. One of the themes in many of my stories is that of a young person discovering that their family does love and support them even though they feel like a misfit, and I try to inspire readers to find that love and support by admitting to their loved ones that they are struggling.
2. The way mental illness is often depicted in media disgusts me.
Part of what I do as a living is review TV shows, among them a soap opera that constantly maligns people with mental illness. This particular show is not the only one guilty of this, but it drives me up the wall to see mental illness to be used over and over as an excuse for violence and for mental health counseling not to be taken seriously in the stories being broadcast.
This happens in non-fiction media too. Have you ever noticed how often news sites speculate that a person who committed a violent crime “suffered from mental illness”? More than once, news has gone out of its way to suggest that the perpetrator of such a crime did so because he had Aspergers Syndrome -- a high functioning type of Autism that I was diagnosed with at the age of 33.
I hate when media, fictional or otherwise, does this, because it contributes to people believing that people with mental illness are dangerous when the truth is that the majority of them are non-violent and people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to become the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.
There are a ton of consequences to the widespread belief that people with mental illness are dangerous.
People may feel too ashamed of having a mental health issue to seek help or even admit to their loved ones that they are having problems, and sometimes that can be deadly (if such a person decides on suicide as the answer). Parents may also have a hard time admitting their kids need help and getting them treatment because of this stigma.
The belief that people with mental illness are “dangerous” can also lead to problems such as residents of a neighborhood protesting the opening of group homes or mental hospitals in their area or support for the government cutting funding to community mental health treatment centers, making it harder for afflicted people to get help even if they overcome the shame and stigma attached to mental health treatment.
Students may also decide not to study psychiatry or psychology or not to take jobs helping the seriously mentally ill out of fear of getting hurt by a “dangerous” person.
I am not naive enough to believe that writing stories about people with mental illness will reverse all of that, but I am idealistic enough to believe that if people read my stories, some of them will see the issue of mental illness in a different way. Some people may reach out for help who didn’t before or may become determined to be a better supporter of the people in their lives who have mental health problems.
The bottom line is that as writers, we have superpowers that we aren’t always aware of. Stories change the world. They empower people to do things they didn’t think it was possible to do and shed light on important issues.
That is why I choose to write stories about mental health issues as well as speak out on those issues whenever I can.
Jack A Ori empowers young adults through stories to live life on their own terms. Jack holds a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University in New York City and works as a life coach and freelance author. His latest book, Reinventing Hannah, about a 16-year-old’s struggle to reinvent herself positively after she is raped, comes out in April 2020. Learn more about Jack and support his mission here.