Literature and mental health intertwine in many ways. Books can better our mental well-being but sometimes they support unhealthy stereotypes.
We should talk about mental health always and everywhere. This includes in literature. Reading a character who is feeling what you feel and can express it better than you were ever able to is powerful. Readers can gain a deep understanding and acceptance of themselves if they see themselves and their struggle presented in books. It can also be encouraging to see a character (however fictional) overcome what you thought you never could. Seeing mental health for what it is and how it can be beaten is important for those with mental illnesses and those without. Negative stereotypes of mental illness have persisted for centuries. This can be broken down and awareness spread for those who may be caring for someone mentally ill or children who could experience it in the future.
For all the good literature has done recently and will continue to do, it wasn’t always beneficial to the acceptance and awareness of mental illness. The idea of hiding your mentally ill wife in the attic in Gothic fiction is not something I would want to encourage. While schizophrenics are often murders in books, they are very unlikely to murder in real life. Much of what literature has presented previously was ‘of the time’ and many authors where trying to challenge it. I can’t image living in a time where doctors thought female hysteria existed. Women were sent away to asylums for doing anything other than what they were told.
Turning from characters to writers, there is a stereotype of the crazy artist. There is some evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness. There are many artists who are struggling with their mental well-being. I recently wrote a post about Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath who both killed themselves. While this link could exist, I feel uncomfortable with its romanticisation. There is nothing glamorous about mental illness. Writers should be writing, not dying.
Literature may have a complex history with mental illness but so does the whole of society. Today books can be used as a force for good in understanding and coping with mental illness.