The ups and downs of writing about your own mental health
I’m not one for secrets. The Myers-Briggs personality profiling tool validates that statement. I score incredibly high on the extrovert v introvert scale – which kind of reinforces the fact that I’m suited to writing about my mental health. I have no qualms letting the entire world take a peek inside my most embarrassing, self-deprecating, personal and fearful moments.
Extroversion is not about inner confidence, though. It’s about thriving on external factors, influences and validation. It’s about talkativeness, which is perhaps why my writing often reaches far beyond my editor’s preferred word count…
So writing about mental health suits me. But it has its ups and downs…
We know that talking about our inner thoughts and feelings helps us. And writing is no different. I rarely plan my articles unless an editor needs a clear framework in a pitch. I may have planned the format of my book, but the content kind of just spills out of my fingertips. Often at high speed if I am in the middle of an anxious or excitable spell.
More often than not it’s reflective. But writing in the moment can be intensely therapeutic. I learnt this one evening when I couldn’t sleep and my anxiety levels were through the roof. It was about 1am. I wandered downstairs, picked up my laptop and just typed straight into my blog. No messing.
By the end of it, I’d kind of rationalised my paranoid thoughts. And I felt physically calmer too. I slept soundly after that.
You need some resilience to write about your own mental health. Hugely successful writer Matt Haig has been termed a ‘snowflake’ and Denise Welch a ‘publicity starved bore’. Both are incredibly vocal about their own mental health and the discrimination and prejudice faced by others.
But it can feel somewhat narcissistic at times. In fact, when I first started writing in support of Time to Change and attended their ‘Storycamp’ bloggers’ workshop, another delegate was debating the issue as to whether trying to achieve success as a mental health writer was narcissistic.
But we’re all a little narcissistic at times surely? Some of that is surely healthy?
I’d say the snowflake element of writing is giving in to such comments and ideas. After all, we should remember that sharing personal stories gives others strength and hope.
If you have lived experience of mental health problems, you can probably spot potential triggers a mile off, those seemingly innocent words that can conjure dark or frightening thoughts and feelings in others. But it’s always, always good to stay alert to them.
I have shared trigger warnings when describing a panic attack in detail, or discussing somebody’s experience of trauma. But it’s nothing to be afraid of and shouldn’t inhibit the creative flow. More often than not, we are more concerned about triggering than we ought to be. So as long as it’s kept in mind, as long as we share the trigger warning when we feel we ought to, our writing is highly unlikely to cause distress.
A good place to sense check mental health writing is Natasha Devon’s mental health charter (definitely worth a read before writing about mental health for the first time).
No mental health writer worth their salt will knowingly feed the stereotype. The psycho, the schizo, the nuthouse. Stigma still exists. This is why the Time to Change campaign is still going strong. But on the other hand, I don’t think we should attack anyone who describes their penchant for tidiness as being ‘so OCD’. Yes, they have misunderstood. Yes, it can cause offence. Yes, it can feed internalised stigma and shame. But attacking will only increase the divide. Much better to offer a friendly heads up. Point that person in the right direction for factual resources. Don’t shame them. Just engage with them.
Again, you should check out the Mental Health Media Charter. It gives writers and journalists guidance, encouraging responsible writing on mental health.
The person behind the illness
Whilst it’s wrong to portray individuals suffering with mental illness as weak, scary or violent, we don’t have to afford mental illness the same courtesy. Mental illness can be ugly and terrifying. The symptoms that is, not the person. I always take care to consider when I am writing that the symptoms do not reflect the whole person. I actually had a column in Standard Issue magazine about mental illness stereotypes that put people in boxes to prove that with mental illness, you simply can’t. Confident globetrotters, successful celebrities, public speakers, comedians – anyone can experience mental health problems.
The head clutcher
We always like to add imagery to bring our writing to life. But with mental health writing, the stereotypical image of the ‘head clutcher’ is as appropriate as Katie Hopkins.
Those bleak images of people sitting in the dark, hugging their knees and looking pained do not tell the full story. I worked closely with my illustrator, the fabulous Jo Neary, to ensure that my words were brought to life carefully. And that’s why Jo always puts the personality in the foreground, and the illness in the background. People are unique. And mental illness is often invisible. The head clutcher stereotype is long gone.
Lucy’s book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes – Naming and Shaming Mental Health Stigmas is available to order from Trigger Press.
It’s official launch takes place on Tuesday 6 March at Waterstones, Newcastle, and Lucy will also be speaking at Head in a Book, Hull on Wednesday 28 February.