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: