Literature Portraying Mental Illness

If you say you have diabetes, people engage, ask about your medication, and say, oh you should not be eating rice, or potatoes, and so it goes. But if you say you have schizophrenia, for example, there will be an uncomfortable hush, as though you have just said something unmentionable. The reason is the stigma behind mental health issues, and the fact that people are just not comfortable with knowing or acknowledging that people can suffer from issues of the mind. Is it because they don’t know enough? Or the fact that it could happen to them too? Or the fact that it may be inside the brain, still a largely unknown commodity, and they can’t view it on the outside, like a fracture or a wound?

People who suffer from mental health issues like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD and others, are stigmatised simply because society is not comfortable with these issues. According to the UK’s leading mental health charity, MIND, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. And because of the stigma surrounding mental health, sufferers may take longer to seek professional health or support from their peers or well-wishers. If there are more fictional or real life accounts with protagonists with mental health issues, perhaps readers can identify with characters in books or films, and feel they are not alone.

Funny_Story_frontIt’s a Kind of Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is a novel inspired by the author’s own struggles with depression. Vizzini uses humour to describe the protagonist’s hospitalisation for depression, and though Vizzini later went on to commit suicide, this book is a testimony to his struggle and is one of the more realist portrayals of depression ever written.

“I work. And I think about work, and I freak out about work, and I think about how much I think about work, and I freak out about how much I think about how much I think about work, and I think about how freaked out I get about how much I think about how much I think about work.”

crazyCrazy by Amy Reed, another YA (young adult) novel, looks at bipolar disorder. Izzy and Connor meet as summer school counsellors and as Izzy spirals into the highs and lows of bipolar, the story is told in chapters alternating between Izzy’s and Connor’s voices.

“Even though I’m sleeping again, everything still feels a little rickety, like I’m here but not quite here, like I’m just a stand-in for my real self, like someone could just reach over and pinch me and I’d deflate. I thought I was feeling better, but I don’t know anymore.”

will graysonWill Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, written by award winning authors John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) is a funny, rude and original (according to the New York Times Book Review) account of a character, Will Grayson, who battles with depression. Told alternatively by the two authors, they describe Will Grayson’s struggles with depression. This book also offers a perspective on how the way society deals with the term “depressed” or “mental health” is not at all helpful for those diagnosed or labeled with mental illness.

“i think the idea of a ‘mental health day’ is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal.”

mrs dallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, written way back in 1925, is inspired by Woolf’s own struggles with bipolar disorder. Set just over a day in the life of socialite, Clarissa Dalloway, the novel examines the character of Septimus Warren Smith, whose madness escalates as he nears suicide.

“A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”

the bell jarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a novel, partially based upon Plath’s own struggles with depression.  It has become a modern day classic and is poetic, literary and beautifully written as it describes Esther Greenwood’s experiences  in New York, as a young fashion intern’s spiralling ride into depression.

“I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of the throat and I’d cry for a week.”

Although characters portrayed with mental illness have progressed from Victorian ones with forced lobotomies, evil nurses, and mad women locked up in attics, and perhaps readers with mental health issues of their own can identify with some of the more modern portrayals, more needs to be done to create more novels with believable and real protagonists. It could, indeed, happen to any of us, and reading these books or watching films (another article I will work on shortly!) will help us get to know and relate to these characters as people, like or hate them, just as we do with all good literature. I hope books like these will help in de-stigmatising mental health and help people become more compassionate, more real as they help their family or loved ones deal with such issues. Or perhaps, such books will help sufferers feel less alone. And perhaps, the world will become more used to diversity and become more inclusive.

And that is my prayer today.





About the author:

Jhilmil Breckenridge is a writer, poet and activist, who was incarcerated twice in India. She can be contacted on


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