Mental Health in Fiction

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Given how hard it is to talk about, and write about, mental health, it seems like fiction, stories, might be the best way to get people to understand. So much of the way we talk about it is metaphorical and impressionistic after all. But I’ve noticed a dearth of good fiction that centers mental health. Actually, that’s being too harsh. The lack that I’ve found is fiction about mental health that resonates with me. The question is, why is that? Am I weird? Some kind of mental health outlier?

Part of why so little of it resonates with me might be because my particular ailment, depression, is a quiet kind of disorder. There’s just not a lot of drama in it, at least not visible drama. Authors and audiences like drama, understandably. That means they are more likely to focus on the manic kinds of illnesses.

Another reason is my teetotalling ways do make me weird. Addiction is probably one of the most common mental disorders and also the most commonly portrayed disorder in fiction. But I’ve never even had a single drink. All those substance abuse stories probably resonate with others, just not really with me.

Hemingway, surprisingly, of all the authors who write about mental illness, resonates with me the most. It’s not surprising because of the quality of his writing. He was a master craftsman. I think it’s surprising because, from what I gather, he and I couldn’t be more different as people. When he talks about mental health, though, he nails it. The Sun Also Rises is probably the most famous. But “Soldier’s Home” is just wow. The restlessness of Krebs. The way he’s desperately lonely until he’s around other people and then he wants to be by himself. I feel seen, as they say.

Mental illness does find its way into some of my fiction. It’s only explicit in one piece that I’ve published (this one), but it lurks in some of the others. This one speaks to the loneliness and isolation. This one is actually patterned after a Hemingway story, The Big Two-Hearted River. Not that anyone would see the connection, or the mental health aspects. I’ve always looked at that Hemingway story as about someone processing and trying to deal with his issues. That’s why I picked it as a model. My story features the unwarranted sense of dread and hopelessness that come with depression.

So, what did I miss? What other fiction is out there that might resonate? I want recommendations. Not that I have the attention span to read them right now, but I’ll get to them. And, out of curiosity, do any of my stories resonate with anyone. That might be another path I could take in this quest.

One thought on “Mental Health in Fiction

  1. This is not as highbrow as Hemingway, but “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” is the one book I’ve read that seems to fit the bill. Protagonist has all kinds of trauma and is just so out of step with everybody else that her depression is simply one more thing in the mix.

    The movie Bridesmaids does a decent job of showing depression. It’s a comedy. I’d watched it dozens of times, and then saw it classified as being about depression. That never occurred to me once. Then I watched it again. Of course. It’s like not recognizing it in oneself, but sometimes it’s so obvious to everyone else around.

    Here’s a link to a pivotal scene that shows a depressed character in a rom-com (if that’s what this genre is) doing something other than crying into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s:

    The whole movie is highly recommended and I’ll admit that there is one particular scene that no matter how bad of a mood I’m in, if I watch it, I’m laughing. I might be grumpy again the second it’s over, but that one scene is fantastic.

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