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Mental Health Issues

 A few weeks ago I noticed that about 90% of the ideas I've been having lately for fiction, whether sci-fi, fantasy or just various projects, seemed to include some character that suffers from a mental health issue. For instance, the last three story ideas have involved a high-fantasy story featuring mage who suffers from chronic night terrors and paranoia, a deconstruction of the superhero genre starring a former hero who's got PTSD and agoraphobia, and urban fantasy story about a former corrupt law enforcement consultant in a world where magic exists but magic-use is also a side-effect of a degenerative mental disorder. 

Oh, I've got ideas for several stories that have no characters with specific mental disorders, or if they do crop up, it's not a thematically important element. On the other hand, those stories feature themes revolving around learned helplessness versus proactive living, the choice to not use innate talents for greatness and fame, and that ruthlessness does not necessarily lead to success. It would be really, really easy to slip in something about mental health into any one of these stories. And I'm not sure it wouldn't happen, because apparently writing about mental health issues is sort of a Thing I Do. 

It's probably a result of my own background that leads me to write these kinds of stories. I grew up in a family full of crazies and badly wired brains. My mother has major depressive disorder, my father probably had undiagnosed bi-polar disorder and certainly had substance abuse problems, and the whole family on both sides have textbook Attention Deficit Disorder. I have two learning disorders (ADD and Sensory Integration Dysfunction) and also suffer from one, possibly two, depression disorders. I was seeing shrinks and occupational therapists from the time I was in first grade and became fascinated with psychology in high school. To this day I regret not switching my major to psychology instead of only taking a couple of college courses in it, because even if I never used it professionally, it would have lead to a much better understanding of my own issues. 

So I write about mental health issues as a way to help out. Because I think we've got a lot of really bad atttitudes, as a society, towards those that are "sick in the head" or "crazy." We blame the person, instead of genetics or other factors that lead to mental health problems. It's their fault for being crazy, or at least it makes them an undesirable person to be around. When we (as a society) focus on mental health disorders at all, we focus on the disruptive symptom and not their causes, treatments or coping skills to deal with them. And we tend to focus on the biggest, flashiest, scariest or most "glamorous" of mental disorders. For instance, a lot of media attention is focused on sociopaths, psychopaths (which are not the same thing, thank you), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder. Occasionally there is a mention of PTSD, but it's generally treated as something you "suck up" and "get over." The only reasonable treatment of PTSD I've seen in the last ten years in popular media is on the medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," which treats it like an ongoing disorder that never goes away and actually changes the brain structure in subtle ways. 

When's the last time you heard of a character in a television show, movie or novel that had something like Sensory Integration Disorder? Or an anxiety disorder not brought on by traumatic events? Or someone who successfully learned to manage their schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? Or gee, when has there ever been a character with narcolepsy outside of a medical drama? Or any type of learning disorder that wasn't ADD/ADHD or dyslexia?

And the fact is that there is rarely any mention of treatment, or any stories about people who have successfully managed their mental disorders. It's always about the symptoms or failures of a treatment's ability to actually help, not about how to live with a mental disorder without it being Living in Crazy Town, All The Time.  And granted, these kinds of stories tend to be more interesting or dramatic, but it doesn't lend any depth to the character going through this kind of thing. And then, because our society are avid media consumers, we get a skewed idea of what it means to have a mental disorder -- which leads to all kinds of problems in the real world. 

So I wind up writing stories about characters that are crazy, because I am crazy. I write about these characters who get stigmatized for being crazy (and in one case, her mental disorder is manipulated to be made worse, and given a host of other mental problems), or actually have or get a handle on their problems. They recognize that they're going to have to deal with these issues the rest of their lives. Some recognize that they, in fact, can get better. And one recognizes, very briefly, that she is too far gone for treatment. These people are "victims" of their own brains. They understand that it's not, inherently, something that they did or could have prevented -- these are things that they were born with or just happened, and it doesn't mean that they are weak or tainted. At least one recognizes that pharmaceuticals aren't his or her best treatment option. They aren't passive victims to their craziness.

I just want to point out that the attitudes of these people are extremely rare to find in any kind of fiction, because here's the crux -- our society blames us for being crazy, so we are taught that being crazy is sort of our fault. Or that we deserve it, because we are Bad People in other ways. And while some mental disorders are preventable, most are a direct response to some kind of bad brain wiring.  I want to write fiction that empowers people to not accept that attitude. Because I am tired of being avoided when people learn about the chronic depression. I'm tired of people telling me that I can really learn how to control how my brain processes sensory information if I just try hard enough. And I'm tired of being told that ADD is a "made up" disorder. Maybe my stories will never, ever get read or published, but at least I know that I spoke up about it. 

Tomorrow I am going to write about Mercedes Lackey and why I still like her books. 

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