Hello everyone! As some of you may know, I’m a Clinical Psychology major with a focus on child and adolescent psychology. Hence, mental health is a subject dear to me, and for which I’d like to advocate in relation to books. The rep of mental health, regardless of what form, in books is of utmost importance, because books reach more people than almost any other medium (save for social media and newspapers).
For last spring’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I talked about good MH rep in contemporary books and posted a list of recommendations. For this month’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, I’d like to take a step away from contemporary, and ask you: Why aren’t there more mental illnesses depicted in fantasy & science fiction? If it’s alright to depict mental illness in a contemporary, but not for a character in a fantasy realm or a futuristic sci-fi setting to suffer from the same illness, then we’re still upholding a partial amount of the stigma mental illness faces. Where are the wizards and cyborgs suffering from Panic Disorder? Where’s the (space) pirate struggling with OCD? Why aren’t there any depressed vampires, schizophrenic mermaids, anorexic dragon hunters, autistic faeries, or shapeshifters with ADHD? There are still remarkably few books which blend genres like fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopian with everyday mental health issues.
These genres have shown progress, certainly, but we’re just not quite there yet. Though disability and disfigurement do not qualify as mental illness, they are certainly crucial to mental health. Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz Brekker in Six of Crows has a limp that pains him constantly and requires him to walk with a cane, just like the author herself does. She demonstrates wonderfully how you do not need to be physically capable to be a fucking mastermind. Kristen Ciccarelli’s Asha in The Last Namsara suffered grave burn injuries due to a dragon attack and carries a visible, lengthy scar, which impacts her self-worth a great deal. I hope that the introduction of physical abnormalities in fantasy will pave the way for mental abnormalities to find more representation in the genre. This is not to say, of course, that there is no rep whatsoever. That statement would be false. A frequent disorder featured in both fantasy and sci-fi is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both Feyre in SJM’s A Court of Mist and Fury and Darrow in Pierce Brown’s Morning Star suffer from symptoms of PTSD. However, there is so much more on the spectrum of mental illnesses than PTSD.
Disclaimer: I have not read all of the books I will mention in the following paragraph, so I cannot make a statement about the quality of the books’ content, but I would like to point out how these books make an effort to include mental illness in genres other than contemporary.
Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows grabbed my attention when the synopsis was published, not just because it features a POC princess, but because the heroine is described as suffering from anxiety and OCD. The forthcoming YA sci-fi Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine & Ann Aguirre features a heroine who has antisocial personality disorder. Nina Zenik in Crooked Kingdom suffers from severe symptoms of withdrawal, not unlike what we’d expect in substance abuse disorders. The Wrath and the Dawn‘s Khalid suffers from insomnia due to a curse, which is how illness-induced insomnia must feel like to people suffering from a mental illness. Some books depict symptoms related to mental illness, others depict a mental illness outright. But it doesn’t matter. Even demonstrating that a fictional character, who’s normally off fighting antagonists and flying spaceships, experiences issues similar to the ones we may deal with in real life strengthens the fight against stigma. And with books targeted at teen and young adult audiences, I regard the inclusion of diversity in the form of mental health issues as all the more important. If we don’t teach young people that it is alright to speak about the demons plaguing our minds, that it is ok to have a sad or anxious or angry day, that it is ok to seek help from friends, family, and professionals – who will?
“It is an odd paradox that a society, which can now speak openly and unabashedly about topics that were once unspeakable, still remains largely silent when it comes to mental illness.” – Gless Close
Of course, the presence of MI rep does not solve the problem of bad aka uninformed MI rep, but for us to distinguish between good and bad rep, we must first have any rep at all.
If you want to be active in the name of mental health during Mental Illness Awareness Week, post some books – no matter what genre or target audience – you recommend for their rep of mental illness on your social media (use the hashtag #MIAW on Instagram).