It was recently World Mental Health Day and there has been plenty of content out there regarding mental illness and spreading awareness. I thought I’d throw in my thoughts too. Funnily enough, the reason this post was delayed and didn’t come out around actual Mental Health Day was because of a nice fat bout of depression. So yeah… However, mental health is still a thing all year round, so I’m still posting even though the marketing person within has told me I’ve missed my slot to be relevant online.
I want to talk about how fiction, particularly fantasy fiction can help mental illness in some ways. Fiction has at times helped me with my problems and given me a bit of a breather from real life. God knows, we could all do with a breather and a step away from reality at times.
For me, depression has really got in the way of my writing and reading throughout my life. One of the worst parts of depression is that you don’t even want to do the things you love anymore. Even if they might help. That’s exactly what happens to me. I get writer’s block. I even take breaks from reading. Then when I return, I’m like “why the hell did I stay away so long?” It’s hard to get lost in fiction when you’re lost in your own head, but if you can manage to even read a page or write 10 words, it’ll be worth it.
Why fantasy fiction can help mental illness sufferers
As a lifelong depressed person and a fantasy fan since I was a kid, I noticed that fantasy was a great way to get lost in another world. The escapism is great when your life isn’t going how you’d hope.
It reminds me of a time when I was a sad kid getting lost in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. May sound cheesy but they helped me through stuff and I know they have with other people too.
One of the reasons the likes of Harry Potter were so popular with kids like me was because…just imagine if it was all different. If we really were special, magical people and we could be whisked away to a fantastic place like Hogwarts. It left a little ache in my poor early teenage heart. I was totally lost in that world and I loved every minute of it.
I think one of the reasons we write and try to emulate the stuff we love is because we’re trying to savour a memory. A memory of how those worlds made us feel. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create something like that ourselves for someone else? I would love to create something that other people could get lost in too.
Recognising yourself in fiction
Another benefit of any type of fiction is when you recognise yourself on the page. You can see your struggles written into the stories you read. This helps you feel recognised and seen, like you’re not alone. This isn’t just reserved for gritty real-life novels. You can see yourself in fantasy fiction just as much.
In fact, I think portrayals of mental illness are interesting in fantasy because they’re removed from this world and stick out more because of it.
It’s pretty well known now that the Dementors of Azkaban are JK Rowling’s personification for depression. And just look at them, what a great visual representation. A soulless creature that sucks the life, the happiness and the colour out of everything around it. Everything becomes cold and grey and hopeless. I thought it was a great example of depression, something JK Rowling has struggled with herself.
However, the downside to this portrayal is that it’s hard to identify with it and not see it as a monstrous part of yourself. On the other hand, I guess depression is like a little monster.
Another good example is Kaladin in the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. He personifies his depression and hopelessness by calling it The Wretch. It’s almost like another being within him, telling him to just give up. It’s described like an infection he has to fight, a darkness and hopelessness. Sounds familiar right? He fights it by focusing on a purpose, which is keeping people alive, but that doesn’t get rid of it 100%. It’s still at the back of his mind threatening to take over.
I’d say this is a good portrayal because he’s a hero, he’s strong, but he’s absolutely vulnerable to his own head.
Realising that you’re not alone
In the second book, there’s a scene where Kaladin is stuck in a chasm arguing with a character called Shallan about entitlement and how they grew up very differently. Kaladin grew up as a second class citizen and Shallan is a high-born lady betrothed to a prince.
Kaladin is pretty bitter about how his life has ended up and tells her she doesn’t know what real struggle is. And she responds in a way that shows him that she has had struggles of her own, different but also very similar. They have both been visited by The Wretch but Kaladin has always felt like it was his demon alone.
He’s hit with this realisation that she is so damaged too. In different ways, they’ve felt exactly the same. I’ve put the passage below if you’re interested in reading.
This scene kills me! It’s just so poignant. Sometimes we really have no idea what other people have felt and experienced. I’m finding the more I’m open about stuff like depression, the more I realise that it’s not just me. I’m not really alone. Thousands of others have felt like me. That’s why we need to talk about this stuff.
Creatures separate to us
In both of these examples, it’s interesting to note that while they are personified representations of depression, they’re personified as creatures – something separate to ourselves.
Seeing it as an external battle like with the Dementors or an internal battle like the Wretch is interesting.
We can blame ourselves all day about our own depression, but it’s not us. Mental illness is something separate, poisonous that we have to fight.
Too often I’ve thought that there’s no escape because this is just me as a person. But it’s not. Depression is something that makes us feel less and less like ourselves until we feel like there’s nothing left. To fight it is to try and tear some of ourselves back bit by bit.
Mental health issues arising in our writing
An interesting thing I’ve noted in all my attempted novels and story ideas is that there are very clear similarities and themes spread across them. I use themes like self-destruction, internal struggles, difficult childhoods, substance abuse, narcissism and so on quite regularly.
I think all writers do this, take things buried in our own heads and spill them out onto the page. It’s the self-expression part of creative work. It can be very therapeutic but it can also highlight to yourself which of the issues you’re facing really need to be dealt with.
Writing is our way of dealing with issues and it can be great up until a point, but therapy is often the next step. If you find yourself exploring the same issues over and over again in your writing, perhaps it’s time to talk them through with a therapist if you can. It’s not always possible to but if you can, it’s an important option to consider. Sadly, while fiction can help mental illness in some ways, it can’t quite treat it.
It’d be great to hear if anyone feels the same way about fantasy writing or if you’ve struggled with writer’s block because of “the wretch” in your head. Do you think fiction can help mental illness?