You have memorized the soundbites, the talking points, the counter-arguments, the thoughts and prayers, the footage from a school or concert or movie theater, the predictable responses, the paper-trail of excuses, the sprawling updates at the bottom of screens.
You have heard it all before, innumerable times now.
By the time you read this, at least two weeks will have passed since the Parkland Massacre. You are probably sick of hearing that it’s not a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue. That argument is not what I want you to think about right now. The painful reality is that this country indeed possesses a sickening attitude toward psychological suffering.
It is partly our fault though. Yes, we writers, we are far from innocent.
If you are reading this you are probably a writer. Statistically, 38 percent of you have been treated for a mood disorder, 80 percent of you suffer from bipolar disorder, 66 percent of you have sought psychiatric help, and, heartbreakingly, seven percent of writers successfully commit suicide – all of these statistics range significantly higher than the general population [i] [ii] [iii] [iv]. About 43.8 million Americans (18.5 percent) experience mental illness every year, costing the U.S. economy about $193.2 billion dollars annually.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.
In this country though, we don’t talk about mental illness.
Even though writers ought to have been the loudest advocates, we have contributed to the stigma. We helped create the monsters and the stereotypes that the bureaucrats and media subsequently propagated with fatal results. With the impassioned momentum created by the youth right now, we must also be voices of change – it is our professional duty.
Over the past few decades writers have softened their depiction of those suffering from mental illness. We have gotten better, but we are often still guilty. Think of your favorite novels, memoirs, short stories, and plays. Increasingly often, the heroes or heroines suffer from mental illness, which is great, but so do the villains, and unfortunately, it seems our villains possess longer lasting power, in multiple ways. Think of Darth Vader or Hannibal Lector.
As a society we have been trained to ubiquitously diagnose, compartmentalize, and understand our villains – both fictional and real. The voices of American culture do the same with terrorists and mass-murderers. In the 70s and 80s it happened with serial killers, but the Ted Bundy and Charles Manson types have fallen out of fashion. Our literature has also contributed to, followed, and perpetuated this social transition.
It’s easier to write a bully or an abusive parent or spouse as a psychopath. I’m not suggesting they weren’t – I’m suggesting we so often fall back on mental illness to categorize antagonists while we also do the same to flavor our protagonists with humanity. That’s not how it works in reality though – mental illness is so much more nuanced. Gradually though, we writers have begun to embrace the intricacies of mental illness, but we need to endeavor to rapidly escalate what is already happening.
We need to be compassionate to ourselves, and then we must be compassionate to those we write about.
It is easy for us to utilize stereotypes, to use mental illness as a defining characteristic in our writing. We need to do better though. We need to treat our art with more compassion and empathy, and in doing so, we must treat ourselves the same way.
I am not stating any of this as an outsider. Just about everything I have written involves mental illness, because it is pervasive in my own life, personally and professionally. I have fought for mental health advocacy because I want to see the day when we treat mental illness as a medical issue that doesn’t warrant bias, discrimination, shame, or condemnation.
The first step we need to take is an introspective one. The tragic truth though is that as writers we’re relentlessly hard on ourselves. We need to be compassionate to ourselves, and then we must be compassionate to those we write about. Expressive writing has proven therapeutically invaluable for those suffering from mental illness[v] [vi]. That is where we begin.
It is my hope that our concentrated efforts will bleed into America at large.
My dear friend, Lisa Jakub, recently published a book titled Not Just Me: Anxiety, Depression, and Learning to Embrace Your Weird, and I want to leave you with a thought from her:
“It was something that haunted me, shamed me. And eventually it was something I came to understand.”
We helped create this stigma – we have to try to fix it.