How Writing Helps with Mental Health
Author Dan Mooney considers the ways in which literature benefits those who are suffering even if the reader is not
They say writing is therapy. I’d be inclined to disagree, but I’d be wrong. Writing Therapy exists, where the written word is used to help people process their complex thoughts and emotions, to work through issues by the act of expressing the written word. Writing really is therapy.
It’s not surprising really, that writing would be so closely linked to mental health issues. Themes of mental health in literature are not new, they’ve been occupying the pages of some of the most seminal texts in history for centuries. Shakespeare’s Hamlet deals with a traumatised young man, and breaks the mind of one of the leading ladies; Ophelia. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story of one man’s multiple personality disorder and The Catcher in the Rye talked openly about how much life was ‘depressing the hell’ out of Holden Caulfield. Sylvia Plath explored body image themes, depression and loneliness in her confessional works.
The list is almost infinite, and points to the important role that writing has played in our understanding of how significant mental health problems can undermine a person. Books, poetry, theatre and film have provided visibility for an issue that as a society we’ve been slow to champion, slow to understand and painfully slow to help. While we as a society hid suicide figures in the 'undetermined death' column of the coroners’ reports, literature was shouting from in between the pages; 'take a closer look at this, you really need to see it'. Writing has been the constant voice for mental health that tells us that we can’t keep looking away and pretending it’s not there.
To my (admittedly limited) mind, there are two important readers to consider when we encounter books with a strong mental health related theme:
The suffering reader is carrying their own mental health issues into the pages of the book. They’re looking to be understood, to not feel alone, to find in those pages something familiar, some thought or feeling or expression to let them know that for all this terrible and lonely feeling and all the isolation that goes with it, there are others out there too. Others out there suffering, but surviving, and in that message, they might hope to find their own unique strength.
The other reader is, arguably just as important. For all the people suffering with terrible invisible illnesses, there are significantly larger numbers of people who don’t suffer, and for them the books dealing with mental health are a window into the minds of their friends or family members who are suffering. Through a central character, the mentally healthy, struggling to put themselves in the shoes of the people they know and care about, can, on some level see and understand what the daily struggle is like, what that crushing isolation feels like.
So at the end of the book the two readers might meet each other and talk about the suffering in a way both can understand it. That’s the true value of what literature can do for us; having read the same book we can talk to one another, and share our understanding, and hopefully, when we’re done feel that little bit more connected to one another, more understood.
When writing Me, Myself and Them, I wanted to portray a character that could be seen as unwell, but only the reader could possibly know the extent of his illness. The other characters would see a suffering young man without ever knowing just how deep it ran. And the reader would have to sit there, knowing what the other characters didn’t; that poor Denis needed so much more help than he was letting on.
Though surrounded by people who care for him, love him and want to see him get better, if Denis can’t make the decision to get help, if Denis doesn’t want to help himself, then there is nothing anyone else can do, and the reader has to process that, knowing just how bad things are getting for him.
It sounds heavy going, and at times it is, but I also think humour has a strong role to play in the telling of stories of mental health. A light touch can reach places that a heavier one cannot, and at the end of the day, the point was always to bring an understanding of what Denis is going through to the reader’s attention.
The link between mental health and writing will, I hope, always be a strong one. Whether it’s through poetry or film or theatre or books, I hope we’ll always see the stories of vulnerable people being told, sometimes with a laugh and sometimes with a tear, but always with the same goal in mind. That when all is said and done, we’re understanding one another a little better, helping each other a little more and we’re no longer pushing our problems with mental health to one side and ignoring them.