Mental Health and Fiction: striking the balance

English: Aldrington Day Hospital Built in the ...


There’s been a right old rumpus going on via twitter, Facebook, blogs, and latterly, the national news here in the UK, over a Halloween Fright Night offering by Thorpe Park. This is called ‘Asylum’ and features ‘scary mental patients’, actors who chase and threaten visitors through a maze set up to look like a hospital. The issue, that a proportion of people don’t see, is the stigmatising association of mental illness with horror, fear, danger, and threat. Not to mention the idea that being scared witless by ‘mental patients’ apparently qualifies as entertainment. The whole back-story is here, if you’re interested, and there’s an update here


For obvious reasons, I’ve been part of the campaign to get Thorpe Park to at least revert the event to its previous iteration – The Freezer. Just as scary but not stigmatising and harmful. But, as objections rolled in I found myself dealing with questions about the portrayal of mental illness in fiction – mostly films, it has to be said. Many of these were ignorant and spurious, but it doesn’t negate the question. We’re all aware of racist/sexist and other terms that, if used carelessly, are offensive, but what about bonkers, crazy, mad, loopy?


I have done some searching. So far, there is nothing that helps with the use of language that, in many cases, no longer belongs to mental health but has seeped into our common referential lexicon: cf You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps which quite obviously is not a slur. It does, however, suggest a measure of unconventionality, unpredictability, ‘zaniness’, so is it still ok?


Googling ‘writing characters with mental health problems’, I came across a set of links – all pretty much on the first page – that are well worth passing on. They all make the same points: the mental illness is not the character, the character is a person first, everyone is different and so will be the way the illness manifests, don’t make your character stereotypically evil/weak/an object of pity/an idealisation, and do your research – don’t pick and mix symptoms, get them right.


My suspicion is that, if we do those things, the language will follow. We will show characters doing or saying things for reasons well founded in their context and not according to assumptions based on inadequate knowledge. Getting it right is important – one in four of us has or will experience a mental health problem and everyone is a potential reader. In addition to the moral consideration, that’s an alienation we can do without so getting it right has to be a win-win, doesn’t it?


Here are the links:




4 thoughts on “Mental Health and Fiction: striking the balance

  1. I didn’t know about this supposed entertainment and it’s truly horrible. I’ve worked with people who were frightened to be given a diagnosis because they thought it meant they were some kind of axe murderer – hard to deal with the stigma on top of their real sense of alienation from themselves.
    Regarding writing characters with mental illness, I’d go a little further than you and say don’t bother unless you really know what you’re talking about. A character doesn’t need to have a label to have quirks that may make them act in an interesting way. After all, we all have our fears and foibles, surely there’s enough to write about from that?

    1. Like you, I’ve worked with people paralysed by mental health difficulties and it grieves me to see travesties like Thorpe Park. But I do think there’s a place for good mental health characterisation, especially if it isn’t the key thing about the person in question. Those fears and foibles can get out of control and escalate which is when I’d want a writer to look very carefully at how they portray them.

      Then there are the stories that depend on a particular profile of – for instance – psychopathy or schizophrenia and if they get those wrong, they’ve lost me and probably many other people too.

      I suppose what I’m saying is that respect for people in the first instance probably leads to respect for authenticity and that in itself should lead to rounded and not stereotypical characters that will satisfy readers who know nothing about mental health, alongside the ones who know it from the inside or as professionals.

      And yes, if you’re not informed and you don’t take the trouble to become informed, you should really not go down that route.

    1. It was good to have a shove in the right direction, albeit on the back of some (continuing) insensitivities. There’s valuable material for the January session there, I think.

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