Discussion: Romanticizing Mental Illness

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In our final discussion this week, we want to discuss romanticization of mental illness. This is a common element in depictions of mental illness, including many in the YA category, where it even sees to be getting increasingly more common. We brought back three previous contributors to discuss what it can look like, why it’s a problem, and the many tropes that fall under this banner.

Kayla Whaley: Hello, all! Shall we start with everyone briefly introducing themselves?

S. Jae-Jones: My name is S(arah) Jae-Jones, but I prefer to go by JJ. I was formerly a YA editor at St. Martin’s Press, and am the author of the forthcoming novel The Goblin King from Thomas Dunne.

Alex Townsend: I’m Alex, a freelance writer. I reviewed All the Bright Places and I Was Here on Disability in Kidlit, as well as Rage.

L. Lee Butler: I’m Lee. I’m a middle school librarian. I reviewed This Is Not a Test and When Reason Breaks (and interviewed the author of the latter).

Kayla: And I’m Kayla, your friendly neighborhood moderator. The first question is going to be pretty broad. How do you define “romanticizing mental illness”? What does it look like/how do you recognize it?

Alex: I think it’s a matter of showing mental illness as something that can bring pain to a person but ultimately always produces beauty.

JJ: That’s hard to answer. I like Alex’s response: that mental illness is something that ultimately produces beauty, usually of the spirit.

Lee: There are a lot of different flavors of romanticizing mental illness. I think the one that annoys me the most is the broken love interest who is cured by protagonist’s devotion. But there’s also the old chestnut of MENTAL ILLNESS = TRUE ARTIST.

Alex: True.

JJ: To romanticize anything is to set it apart as something Other, different, and the otherness is what makes it romantic and exotic.

Lee: And when we include things like PTSD in our broad category of mental illness, there’s the idea of suffering making someone more noble. And since so often, I see authors justifying MI with a traumatic root, they go hand in hand.

JJ: Also, that mental illness is necessarily caused by an external factor. X thing happened, so now Character Z has Y mental illness. That’s not romanticization so much as a trope I see a lot.

Alex: I think mental illness is often also seen as a nice low-stakes dramatic device. It’s the problem that can be solved by the right person doing/saying the right thing.

Lee: Oh, yeah to the “right response = cure.” That’s a pernicious one. If the right boy just tells the girl she’s beautiful, she won’t be anorexic anymore!

Alex: I think it’s especially common in romance novels. There, the male MC often has a traumatic dark past that the female MC gets to be caring about until he’s better.

Lee: That’s what I mean by traumatic root, which I think interlinks with the idea that suffering is noble. It’s a way of superficially deepening characterization, if that makes any sense.

Alex: I like that, “superficial deepening.”

Kayla: Let’s talk about tropes. Since Lee brought up the “crazy creative” and JJ the external factor leading to mental illness. What are some of the tropes relating to romanticizing mental illness you see used most often? Why are they problematic/harmful? I’m thinking of the ones already mentioned, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Guy, the Beautiful Tragedy, the Rebel/Non-Conformist, etc.

JJ: I don’t know if tropes are necessarily a “bad” thing, providing they are examined with care and sensitivity. HOWEVER. Seeing them over and over again creates a monolithic view of mental illness.

Lee: So, I really don’t think that the Magic Pixie Dream Girl trope can be applied to male characters.

Alex: I disagree. It was really there in All the Bright Places.

JJ: I agree with Alex; there can absolutely be a Manic Pixie Dream Boy.

Lee: It’s a specifically misogynistic thing about girls being objects to be figured out and fixed, and whenever I see someone applying that to male characters, it’s more about brooding masculinity in the tradition of Wuthering Heights.

JJ: In All the Bright Places, I would agree that the male MC is a MPDB. It’s not as common as MPDG, but it can definitely exist.

Lee: (Haven’t gotten around to All the Bright Places yet, so I’ll be interested to see.)

JJ: His death/pain services her story.

Alex: And he showed her how to really experience life.

Lee: Good to know that equality can mean we’re all equally objectified … Anyway, other tropes: Gay Suicide.

JJ: Magical Cure. Love Fixes Everything.

Lee: Abuse = mental illness (both for victims and perpetrators)

Alex: Mental illness = crime solver or criminal

Lee: And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention in the wake of all the coverage of the German plane: mental illness = homicidal.

Alex: I particularly hate when someone with a mental illness commits suicide and its main purpose is to inspire other people to appreciate life or something.

JJ: YES, ALEX. THAT TROPE MAKES ME SO MAD.

Lee: UGH. MY LIFE AND SUFFERING ARE A FOOTNOTE FOR YOURS.

Kayla: (Hold onto that rage. We’ll talk romanticizing suicide in particular soon.)

Alex: Oh, I’m holding!

JJ: More tropes: My Mental Illness Makes Me Too Fragile/Artistic/Different For This World. I’m Different and Outside and Always Will Be.

Kayla: I like JJ’s earlier point about tropes not inherently being bad, but the homogenous view of mental illness they create being a problem. What do these tropes say about mental illness? What messages are readers getting?

Alex: I think it’s bad to see people with mental illness “cured.” It sends the message that mental illness is a temporary struggle, and you can eventually get over it. I’d like to see more stories where someone learns to cope, or gets in a better situation, but also knows this is a part of their life.

JJ: I see a lot of people using mental illness as a prop or set dressing, like it’s a magic sword MacGuffin that moves plot along, when it’s as mundane as chronic illness. It is something you live with.

Lee: “I’m Different” as a trope (which JJ mentioned) is problematic on two angles: one, the othering of people with MI, and two, the pathologizing of teenage experience. I think the feeling of being an outsider is actually a nearly universal one for teens (no coincidence that one of the classics of the genre is literally titled The Outsiders). So I think that linking that common experience with a specific set of disabilities can be really weird and appropriative.

Like, the feeling becomes, “Well, everyone’s depressed, why can’t you cope?” Chronic conditions are a problem for traditional narratives in general.

Alex: Good point. I hate having to explain the difference between “I feel sad” and “I have a mental illness.”

Lee: Honestly, it’s something I’ve been having trouble with myself recently, trying to remember that my mental illness is legitimately disabling, and that everyone around me isn’t dealing with the same roadblocks.

JJ: I think it’s hard to dramatize mental illness.

Alex: How so?

JJ: It’s like dramatizing the narrative of being a POC.

Lee: That’s a good analogy, JJ. We get narratives that are About Being Black, or About Being Depressed, as though these are the whole life of the people being portrayed.

JJ: My kneejerk reaction is to stay away from what I perceive as “issue books.” Where the dramatic point of the narrative revolves around mental illness (or in the case of Asian characters, where the main conflict is between Old Values and New Culture, something similar).

Alex: On the other hand, I do see the virtues of mental illness issue books. It can help people understand an issue that few people really understand and can give people with mental illness perspective if it’s done well.

Lee: Issue books are a thorny one. On the one hand, I hate many of them for their simplicity, but they are useful and graspable, and particularly appealing to younger readers . But too often, the issue has to be solved in order for it to be a simple enough narrative, and that’s where the problems come in.

JJ: I see the value of issue books too. However, personally, I would prefer to see a narrative with a character who has mental illness, where that mental illness isn’t the point around which the entire plot turns. But I feel the same way about issue books involving Asian characters, so that’s a personal thing.

Alex: I agree that there should also be more books with incidental mental illness.

Lee: Incidental representation is a huge issue in all media, for all kinds of minority groups.

Kayla: Do you think books where the mental illness is incidental might have less risk of romanticizing? Or can they fall into the same trap?

JJ: I think anything can fall into the trap of romanticizing something. However, having characters with incidental mental illness mitigates the sense that it’s something external, a plot problem to be fixed.

Lee: There’s also the stupid editing question: why is this here? Any time you want to show difference in incidental characters, someone is going to ask why they are different from the (straight, white, male, able) “norm.”

Alex: I agree that romanticizing can happen anywhere, but I think it’s less likely to happen if the mental illness is incidental.

Lee: I agree, there has to be a certain amount of focus for there to be romance.

Alex: And without it being a focus, the mentally ill character could be more well-rounded.

JJ: I think issue books, by nature of what they are, tend to be a little reductive. I think issue books have value for those struggling with mental illness, with finding validation within the pages. Knowing you exist is a powerful feeling.

Lee: Absolutely! But sometimes there is a need for simplicity that unfortunately gets turned into reductive writing.

JJ: However, in addition to issue novels, I think there need to be more narratives where heroes have a mental illness. Where the hero gets to save the day … and have bipolar disorder. And the mental illness isn’t what saves the day.

Alex: But there can also be good and bad choice in simplifying a narrative. What do you think of the use of ADHD in Percy Jackson?

JJ: Alas, I haven’t read Percy Jackson, so I can’t comment.

Alex: I thought it was cool to have, but then was frustrated when it was a sign of godhood.

Lee: I found the ADHD to be a good hook for getting readers to read the book. (It also allowed me to disclose my diagnosis to students, which was helpful.)

Kayla: Let’s switch gears a little. How do you write characters who may hold problematic views of mental illness (especially characters enamored with their love interest) without romanticizing mental illness? This seems like something that comes up a lot, and something you’ve all mentioned already but maybe warrants a little more discussion.

Lee: Oh man, this is a problem for so many things! How to provide a corrective without just becoming a didactic tirade? I think this is an especial problem for kidlit. Not only because of its didactic roots, but also because of the need to sometimes be unsubtle as well as overcome adult gatekeepers.

JJ: To be completely honest, I don’t know if it’s possible. The only way to mitigate problematic views of mental illness is to give voice to the character with mental illness.

Alex: I think it’s possible. Maybe someone has a mentally ill love interest, says problematic things, and has their love interest call them on it?

Lee: The problem becomes when the problematic views are so internalized.

Alex: I think there’s really something to be said for mentally ill characters just get annoyed and saying what they feel.

JJ: I would just prefer not to have a love interest with mental illness; I would prefer to see the narrative from the POV of the person with mental illness.

Lee: Something I think might be interesting will be to see how disability communities on Tumblr might seep into YA writing. Like, just going off on someone IRL about appropriative/othering/romanticizing language and actions doesn’t happen in paragraph form, but it totally does on Tumblr.

Alex: There could also be some cool moments of just bursting the romanticized bubble in the narrative.

JJ: The reason I would prefer to see a narrative from the PoV of the character with mental illness is that said character is the one experiencing the micro-aggression. And that is a much more powerful way to correct romantic notions—when you experience the micro-aggression along with the character directly.

Alex: True, micro-aggressions are the worst and only the person experiencing it could really illustrate why they’re bad.

JJ: If someone used a racial slur against me, telling the other person, “That’s wrong and you shouldn’t say that” doesn’t do much to change perceptions at large. But if someone were experiencing that with me? That’s something different.

Lee: It’s a matter of figuring out how to make the history and experience of the character real for the normative reader. Which can be a real challenge. Especially for the reader for whom this is their first (or early) exposure to the concept.

Alex: There is a balance to strike. Ideally there would be plenty of stories within and outside of the perspectives of mental illness. Because lots of outsiders don’t really relate until they hear a story from the outside perspective.

JJ: I feel outsiders get a lot of catering. But I agree, there is room for more perspectives in general.

Alex: Yes. There is a lot of catering for this and many other topics.

Kayla: Let’s talk about romanticizing suicide in particular, especially given the recent spate of “suicide books” coming out. Are there differences from romanticizing mental illness in general? Why do you feel suicide is such a “hot topic” right now?

JJ: Well, the “hot topic” thing is simply that trends in publishing have this weird way of happening at the same time. When I was acquiring, it was like we were all tapped into a subconscious hive mind of books coming out.

Lee: Like when they tried to make mermaids happen a few years ago. Romanticizing suicide and self-harm is a particular problem since these are contagious behaviors.

Alex: Suicide narratively is the ultimate bittersweet tragedy. It’s the thing that’s always an automatic regret button for the reader and other characters.

JJ: Coming back to the notion that suffering and pain makes us more beautiful or noble.

Lee: And allowing us to “really see” what the other characters felt about the suicidal person. Which is a huge fantasy in suicidal ideation: they’ll miss me when I’m gone!

Alex: Most of the time you can debate if someone was wrong to do something, but if they kill themselves then there was obviously something wrong.

JJ: My problem with suicide books is that characters who commit suicide have their deaths turned into a Very Special Episode kind of lesson. “Suicide is tragic, so live life to the fullest!” They get Fridged (to borrow a term from the comics world). Their deaths advance the protagonist’s character development.

Alex: True. I was really struck when the boy dies in All the Bright Places, how there was a whole section about how sad everyone was that he was gone, but also that the narrator was so bitter because the boy’s classmates and family had often bullied him. It seemed very much like trying to punish those people. I read it as the author’s personal feelings coming through.

Kayla: So, how do you show suicide as both tragic and shitty and realistic and down-to-earth? And without using the suicide as a Lesson for the other (abled) characters?

Lee: It’s a hard question! I really liked how it was handled in When Reason Breaks, since it showed how shitty and traumatic it was not just for the suicidal character, but for everyone around her too. But without it being a lesson for them to learn. (See review. -ed)

JJ: The other thing I think that’s important to address is that not all people with mental illness are suicidal.

Alex: Good point.

JJ: People commit suicide for many, many reasons. And not all of them have to do with mental illness.

Lee: YES! Although suicide allows a retroactive diagnosis: if they didn’t have mental illness, they wouldn’t have committed suicide. Which gets into the mental illness = criminality narrative that isn’t necessarily in YA, but is in the rest of the media. White man commits a violent, public crime? He must have a mental illness!

Alex: To what extent do you think stories dealing with suicidal issues should be prescriptive? Personally, I think stories where someone manages to get to a better place in some way and not kill themselves can do more for the reader, but it’s a complicated issue.

Lee: Have any of you read Hello Cruel World by Kate Bornstein? It’s nonfiction, non-narrative, but I feel like it’s actually some of the best writing about suicide ever in kidlit. Unfortunately, I think it went out of print very quickly, as books for teens that don’t completely condemn drug use are wont to do.

JJ: Suicide is as much a societal phenomenon as it something that is comorbid with mental illness. There are a lot of people who commit suicide who have mental illness, but I see a lot of people driven to suicide by bullying.

Lee: Which again comes to the problem of contagious behavior. Suicide as one option on a menu of coping strategies.

Kayla: So, to wrap things up, what are the ultimate dangers of romanticizing MI?

Lee: Oy, that’s a biggie.

Kayla: Saved the best for last, I guess. 🙂

JJ: Failure to imagine others complexly (to crib from John Green) leads to dehumanization. It is so much easier to trivialize, write off, or dismiss an “issue” when your only exposure to said issue was a problematic one.

Alex: Ultimate? I guess giving people the idea that mental illness or even suicide can be beautiful. It makes it hard to realize that mental illness people are also normal people. They can be all around you.

Lee: In some ways, mental illness has been a crutch in YA writing for a long time, much like the Holocaust was. It’s a way to add depth or tragedy without earning anything. If anything, there isn’t a problem of having mental illness be present as a theme in YA, it’s having it be portrayed accurately and correctly.

JJ: Romanticizing mental illness trivializes it. It makes people think it’s something that can be “fixed.” That people with mental illness are defined by their mental illness.

For fuck’s sake, I am many things, and bipolar is not in the top 25 of things I think of when it comes to describing myself. “I am large and contain many multitudes,” or so saith Whitman.

Kayla: I feel like that’s an exceptionally appropriate way to end. Thank you all so much for participating!



About Author

L. Lee Butler

L. Lee Butler is a public school librarian on paternity leave. He's a pretty typical librarian: likes to read, does crafts, gay. In addition to serving on YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection Committee 2013, he also reviews diverse titles for School Library Journal.

S. Jae-Jones

S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the author of Wintersong, forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books in 2017. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives in North Carolina, as well as many other places on the internet.

Alex Townsend

Alex Townsend is a writer, a day-dreamer, and a really cool person. She also has depression. It's okay. She's still cool and you're still cool. You'll make it. She believes in you.

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7 Comments

  1. Pingback: #NoShame in Mental Illness: A Reading List | Maybelle Chan

  2. I agree that it’s important to have characters with mental illness at the center of their own stories, but I would be sorry never to see a mentally ill character as a non-MI protagonist’s love interest. Maybe that’s because I already know my own story very well, but I would love to understand better what my husband’s experience has been! I would love to read about a good character who means well but sometimes says the wrong thing, who knows a loved one’s anxious or depressive behaviors are largely beyond his/her control but sometimes finds them kind of annoying to deal with, who wonders if it’s too soon to initiate sexy playtime with a loved one emerging from the fog. Mostly, I want to see someone like me portrayed as desirable without being either defined by her illness or having it glossed over. A book specifically about being in love with a mentally ill person could be good in the right hands, but what I would really love would be a character with a mentally ill love interest in a book that wasn’t “about” mental illness, in which it was basically a subplot, the way it is in my life and relationship most of the time.

    • I really enjoyed reading this discussion. I have written a YA novel where a single parent is mentally ill, and I can say that there is no romanticizing in mental illness; however, there is a theme of hope. The book is about a 16-year-old girl who is trying to live her own life amidst all that goes along with living with a mentally ill parent.

      Of course, there are many different types of mental illness, mild to severe. Using a person with a mild case of OCD is more believable to a character’s success in romance than in a severe case of schizophrenia.

  3. Pingback: Tropes | Inside the Cuckoo's Nest

  4. Hi! I found this discussion very interesting. I am giving a school-related presentation on romanticizing suicide and the phenomena among young adolescents today. I would like to start my presentation by reading an excerpt from a novel/short story, showing how these themes of romanticizing suicide are displayed in books read by adolescents. Do you have any recommendations for such excerpts? I am having difficulty googling for it and am very out of touch with the young-adolescent-book world.

    If you have any suggestions, please, please let me know!

    Thank you!

  5. Hey, is it okay if I link to this in a post about mental health / trauma rep in YA? I wrote a really long one and this is such a freaking amazing thread.

  6. Pingback: Book Chat: Trauma Narratives in YA – thebookishactress

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