Mental Illness in Literature

When I first got to college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to major in English or psychology. Both fields have fascinated me for a long time, and I didn’t know how to pick one over the other. It wasn’t until I really looked within myself (as cheesy as that may be) that I knew English was the path for me. That being said, my love for psychology has never died. I am particularly interested in the ways in which mental health and literature intersect. After all, psychology has significant effects on literature whether we realize it or not. The ways in which characters are developed, plots are built, relationships grow, and so on are all influenced by psychological developments and understandings. For that reason, I have always been curious about depictions of mental health—and mental illness specifically—in the media. While we may not always think of literature as media, it is. So let’s take a look at mental health and its reflections in literature. I thought an interesting way to do this would be to look at an interview posted on with Jerry Pinto, an author of several books (both fiction and nonfiction) that deal with mental illness.

In the interview, the issue of the romanticization of mental illness in literature (and media in general) is a common thread discussed throughout. Pinto argues that mental illness is, indeed, both romanticized and dramatized. While this may make for good literature and entertainment, it certainly does not shed light on the realities and accuracies of mental illness. As a result, many people have false perceptions of what mental illness actually is and looks like. While you may be wondering, how can mental illness be dramatized? Isn’t it often downplayed? That can be true, too. People with mental illness in the media—and in real life—can be seen as “faking it” or just needing to “suck it up.” However, there’s also the other spin in which mental illness is turned into this hysteric, uncontrollable way of living. As Pinto says, “Apparently, these mentally ill people go throwing their arms up and shouting and screaming. They show the whole illness as a series of high moments but it’s not like that. In fact, what is most painful about mental illness is the sameness of the act. The inevitably of it, its return, its coming back, these are the painful parts of it.” In light of this statement, it makes me wonder: how can authors accurately portray mental illness? Especially writers who do not suffer from mental illness themselves. How do we, as humans, step outside of ourselves and depict others whose shoes we have never filled? Surely, we have a responsibility to do this image justice, but how do we go about achieving that?

So this is the question I pose to all of you… Would you undertake this difficult task? How would you portray characters whose lives, whose difficulties, you yourself did not understand entirely?


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