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Special Needs in Strange Worlds Guest Post: Dan Wells (THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND) on Writing Mental Illness


Dan Wellsdan-wells-01 writes in a variety of genres, from dark humor to science fiction to supernatural thriller. Born in Utah, he spent his early years reading and writing. He is the author of the Partials series and the John Cleaver series. He has been nominated for both the Hugo and the Campbell Award, and has won two Parsec Awards for his podcast Writing Excuses. Learn more about him on his website.

Writing Mental Illnesses

by Dan Wells

One in five people in America has a mental illness. One in twenty has a mental illness so serious it inhibits their ability to function. Look around the room you’re in: do you know who they are? Do you know how to help them? Maybe that one in five is you: do you know how to help yourself? The most depressing statistic of all is that no, none of us do. In 2015, Americans with mental illness are more likely to be in prison than in therapy. As a nation and as a culture we are absolutely terrible at recognizing, treating, and coping with mental illness. This needs to change.

My family has a relatively small history of mental illness, though knowing what I know now it’s easy to look back and wonder–did that ancestor have depression? Did that one have bipolar disorder, or OCD, or schizophrenia? What we do have is a clear history of dementia, most of it senile, so I grew up accustomed to the idea that sometimes my loved ones’ brains didn’t work the way they were supposed to. When I got married my wife and I spent our first eight months living with my grandfather, caring for him in the middle stages of Alzheimers. I became fascinated with mental health, and, as a writer, with the depiction of mental health in art and fiction.

What struck me the most once I really started to look at it was the way mental health is either canonized or demonized: on the one hand you’ve got stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where mental illness isn’t a disease or even harmful, it’s just a bunch of free-spirited people held down by The Man. On the other hand you’ve got stories like Psycho, where dissociative identity is inherently evil and drives a man to kill. Both are sensationalized takes on the subject, and both in their ways are equally damaging. If mental illnesses are evil, we stigmatize them and start treating them with punishments instead of help; if mental illnesses are are form of harmless enlightenment, we stop treating them at all.

It is our job, as artists and creators, to change this perception. On TV, for example, characters with a mental illness were five times more likely to be murderers than characters without–despite the fact that in real life, there is absolutely no corresponding link between mental health and violence. Literature tends to be a little better, but the stigma is still there. Why not write those characters are normal people who happen to have an illness–or, even better, why not write them as heroes? If one in five Americans have a mental illness, why does only one in ten thousand or so fictional heroes have one? Can you, in the next ten seconds, even name one other than John Nash or Adrian Monk? Tony Stark had a panic disorder in Iron Man 3, though it was magically gone again by Age of Ultron. Putting my money where my mouth is, I’ll give you an example from my own work: in the second book of my post-apocalypse trilogy, called Fragments, I had a character named Afa, a polynesian computer whiz who helps the heroes trek across the wasteland of America and hack into a lost data center. As I began writing him I thought: “why not give him a mental illness? I don’t have one in this series, and it would be a neat twist to his character.” So I gave him a form of autism, and a bunch of coping mechanisms to help him live with it, and he was still a hero, and he became many people’s favorite character in the series.

(And now that you’ve had some time to think, you might have come up with a few more heroes as well–though again, the odds are good that most of the characters you thought of have a needlessly violent bent to them. Leonard Shelby, the amnesiac protagonist of Memento, is ostensibly the hero, but by the end of the story he turns out to be a rage-fueled villain tricked by his faulty mind into thinking he’s the hero. As strange as it sounds to call anything in that movie a cliche, “the mentally ill guy who thinks he’s doing good but is actually hurting people” is really, really old one. Just ask Hamlet.)

So: how do you write mental illness correctly? One of the great resources I discovered while writing The Hollow City, my thriller about a man with schizophrenia, were therapy books and self-help manuals. Technical books are great for learning exactly how a given disorder works, but therapy books are the best for learning how that disorder actually functions in daily life, and what it’s like to live with, and what kind of behaviors the ill person’s friends and family are likely to engage in. Clinical resources can tell you what kinds of medications are prescribed for a disorder, and what the side effects are, but therapy books are the ones that describe how to deal with those side effects, and the street-level details of what life is like in that situation.

A few years after I published The Hollow City, my brother–just one year younger than me and one of my best friends in the world–developed an anxiety disorder which quickly ballooned into depression, agoraphobia, and OCD. All of my research, and all of my writing, suddenly became more personal. We decided to step up our efforts to raise awareness of mental illness in fiction, and co-edited an anthology called Altered Perceptions specifically designed to help people notice and think about mental health. It was a limited printing, but if you can find a copy I highly encourage you to pick it up; the stories are great, but the real gem is that every author who contributed–from Seanan McGuire to Lauren Oliver–shared a personal essay about their own connection with mental illness. The stories are incredibly moving.

As I began to write The Devil’s Only Friend, my newest book and the fourth in the John Cleaver series, I wanted to continue to explore new aspects of mental health. The main character already has sociopathy, but I doubled down by pairing him with another character who has dissociative identity disorder–what we commonly refer to as multiple personality disorder. Just like with the other illnesses I’ve written about, it was hard to get it right, but in the end I think it all just comes down to research and honesty: you’re telling a sensational story, but you don’t have to sensationalize the illness. Depression doesn’t make someone saintly or evil any more than cancer does, it’s just a thing that they have to deal with, and it gives the character shape and texture but it doesn’t define them, and it certainly doesn’t force them into a particular path.

One in five Americans has a mental illness. I can’t stress that enough. Help them get the visibility, the treatment, and the heroes they deserve.

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