Writing and Mental Health

I was recently contacted on Facebook by a woman who wanted to ask me some questions. But she was concerned that my answers would lead to “a thousand more questions.” Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to answer THAT many questions, so I asked her to come up with just a couple.

She sent along three questions that all revolved around mental health in my fiction. The questions were good, so I asked if I could answer them publicly and she graciously agreed.

For those of you who read this blog for insight into a writer’s mind, this may be of some interest to you. I hope. 🙂

1. Are you familiar with mental health issues on more than a surface level? For example: have you ever studied psychology, experienced psychological issues personally, through a friend or family member, done research…)

I hesitate to say that my familiarity with mental health issues is anything more than skin-deep (apologies for the skewed metaphor). I always hate it when some author or actor or whomever claims some great understanding of an issue or subject simply because he or she has researched it for a book or a role or what-have-you. People spend their entire LIVES studying things like mental health, and it would be crass of me to claim to have anything more than the most basic understanding of it on the basis of having read some books and taken a class or two in college.

(This is another pet peeve of mine: The person who took a few classes on some topic in college and now thinks he or she is an expert. Puh-lease!)

So I think it’s accurate to say that familiarity with mental health issues comes from a combination of life experience (i.e., being as messed up as any other human being on this planet!), observation (helping friends and family with their issues), and pure absorption (watching and remembering what other people do and how they act; all authors do this to a degree). If my work seems particularly resonant in this area, I’d say it’s most likely that I’m just good at synthesizing all of this stuff on an unconscious level.

Oh, but the Dr. Kennedy character who helps both Josh and Kyra is based on a therapist I knew. Cool guy. Gruff. Sort of the opposite of every therapist you see on TV.

2. As an author of young adult literature (I specify your role in this question because I’m interested in your answer despite the fact that this might be a question better posed to a Psychologist,) do you think that the characters you’ve created and characters in other YA books with similar issues, have the potential to be used as therapeutic tools to help real teens deal with their own mental health issues?

Oh, sure! I get e-mails from kids all the time telling me that reading this book or that book helped them through some issue of theirs, or that they identified with a specific character at a specific moment and it helped to see themselves in that spot. So the books are being used unintentionally as therapeutic tools already.

I would hesitate to say to anyone, “Oh, feeling depressed about that abuse you suffered as a child? Read Boy Toy and put it all in perspective!” I mean, a good book can go a long way towards helping someone, but — speaking for myself — I don’t write the books thinking about their therapeutic value or potential. Professional help is always the best way to go, in my estimation, and if the book helps, too, then great.

In those instances where someone is unwilling or unable to get professional help, it’s immensely gratifying to think that one of my books might do a little good. I’m sure any other author would feel the same way.

3. While writing Hero-Type were you conscious of the fact that Kevin was dealing with some interesting psychological issues of his own, his voyeurism for one, and doesn’t that realization sort of fascinate you? The fact that while all of an authors characters may not be suffering from a debilitating mental illness, a good author can create such intricate facets of a fictional persons psyche that they can create psychological issues that are real enough to be diagnosed by the actual DSM?!

Yeah, I was aware of Kross’s issues from the start. And in fact, Hero-Type is the book I revised more than any other, mostly because I had set up a situation where Kross is a pretty messed up kid, but unlike Josh or Fanboy, he’s not a genius-level brain who can examine himself and figure out his problems. I needed Kross to sort of stumble into his own epiphany, but still let the reader in on the fact that this kid is a mess in ways that he doesn’t quite understand yet. (Someone once told me they cried at the end when Kross sets up that he has to come back to Brookdale, and I was like, “Damn! I guess it worked!”)

Does the realization that a fictional character can be diagnosed fascinate me? Hell, yeah! Then again, just about everything about writing fascinates me. It amazes me, for example, that if I change one or two key sentences in a book, the reader will have a completely different experience than the original draft.

But sticking to mental health: I suppose upon reflection it makes sense (though is no less fascinating!) because characters are created by people, and ultimately they behave in ways in which people would behave. So if I decide to write about a depressed kid, I’m not going to create a new, alien flavor of depression — it wouldn’t even occur to me! What I do is remember examples of depression I’ve seen, heard about, read about, and then chop and channel until I get something sleek and cool and workable. When you look at it that way, it’s not much of a stretch to think that such a character could be actually diagnosed.

My favorite example of this comes from Boy Toy: As I mentioned in the deleted scenes, the original draft of the book had a subplot in which Josh begins to suspect that his own mother may have molested him even before his abuse at Eve’s hands. Well, that got cut before the book went to press, but one day a child counselor came up to me at a signing and said, “Hey, I read this book and I deal with abused kids all the time and… Well, tell me if I’m crazy, but I can’t help thinking that Josh was molested even earlier, possibly by his mother.”

Obviously, she wasn’t crazy, and I was sort of blown away that there was enough stuff in the book to “diagnose” this issue even though I had removed all of the direct references to it!

I hope this digression about mental health hasn’t driven any of you crazy. (Sorry.) Thanks to Stacey for the thought-provoking questions!

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