Exploring Mental Health in Fiction

This year I’ve been on a journey of discovery. I’m discovering the kind of writer I am and the kind of writer I want to be. And I’m really excited by what I’m discovering about myself and about my books.

It started late last year when I applied to speak at TedXMandurah. When you apply as a speaker you have to give them a sense of what it is you want to talk about. But TedX isn’t a platform for selling. I couldn’t talk about my books. I also wanted what I said to be something that would resonate. I wanted my message to have the same kind of emotional and mental impact that I want my books to have on my readers. I wanted to say something transformational. I wanted to speak to the power of possibility.

And you know, I empower writers every day by talking about the power of fiction and how they can get their books into the world. I’ve been teaching the craft for more years than I’d care to count. I wanted my TedX talk to be more universal. I wanted to reach the non-writers in the world. So I had to dig deeper. I had to delve into what I truly know. What I can speak about with true authority.

When I dug into the overlap between what I truly know and what I can share that could change people’s lives, I discovered that to my very core my messages are about mental health. They’re about the power of the mind. I could talk about learning to see the light in the darkness, of finding strength and resilience in hardship, of learning to turn the challenges in our lives into our power.

If you’d like to watch that talk you can see it here, but I want to take a few minutes today to talk about the impact of that insight on my writing.

You see, I’ve always know that I’m definitely a Y.A. Science Fiction and Fantasy author. That has been my genre since I was six. It’s the only kind of writer I’ve truly wanted to be. I explored children’s books because I wanted to open up stories to my dyslexic son and it was a great homeschool project, but my heart was never truly in it. As much as I love visiting schools and libraries with our P.I. Penguin and GameNite books they don’t sing to my own heart. And as much as I love being a dyslexia advocate and educating teachers and parents about fostering a love of reading the reason that matters so much to me has a lot less to do with literacy and a hell of a lot more to do with mental health.

It’s only as I started exploring how mental health is inextricably linked to what I write that I started to realise, I don’t just write Y.A. Sci-Fi/Fantasy books. I write mental health psychology novels. All of my books deal in theory of mind. They explore different mental illnesses, sometimes giving fantastical variations of them, but at the core they still deal with what it feels like to have a ‘broken’ mind.

In The Flight of Torque I write about a young woman who battles against an inner darkness. The battles between Tori and Torque is a mirror to my battles with Bipolar. I live them, every single day. At war with a dark, seductive being within that is selfish and primal. Like Tori, I’ve had to learn how to work with that inner darkness. The manic/depressive nature would tear me apart if I didn’t learn to embrace it. And that’s what The Flight of Torque is truly about. At least to me. It might be hidden in a supernatural thriller where there are snake cults and angels, but at it’s true core, it’s a girl fighting for her mental health.

In City of Light, Niah and Wish battle too. In a different way. Niah is fighting a chronic illness. One that, over time, becomes more and more debilitating. There’s so much she wants to do and accomplish but her body is betraying her. She’s running out of time. And this too takes a toll on mental health. Again, it’s lived experience. You see I have both an autoimmune condition and early onset osteoarthritis. There’s so much I want to do and accomplish but only so much I can do through the pain. And yet? It’s still a story of hope.

And perhaps that’s the most challenging thing about City of Quartz, book two in the series, because I’m transitioning from Niah’s story about living with a chronic illness, to Wish’s story about living with a sister who is terminally ill. That’s my story too, but to make that transition I’m risking an ending where Niah might not make it. I don’t know yet. Part of me says the only way to tell the story is to have Niah die but another part of me screams that the story of hope and the whole point of Sci-Fi is to find a way to ensure she lives. But either way, the story is the war in our minds.

And most recently, with Spirit Talker, I’m telling a story that is so blatantly a mental illness novel that I can’t believe I’d never seen it before. In Spirit Talker, Sara, the main character, see’s dead people. Her psychiatrist calls it schizophrenia, but she can’t help wondering if maybe what she’s seeing actually is real. After all, psychic mediums aren’t insane, are they? Again, this is a lived experience of mental health. You see, I’m raised in a very spiritual family and we believe in the afterlife, reincarnation, and yes, the ability to see beyond the veil. I see dead people. But I also have a mental illness (Bipolar) so I’ve always had that war inside myself that tries to make sense of what is real and what isn’t.

Everything I write seems to come back to the way our minds work. It’s all fiction, although with a whole heaping of lived experience because the adage of “write what you know” exists for a reason. One of the things I discovered as a teenager was that fiction is the perfect vehicle for fact. Within fiction we can go deep. We can resonate core truths. We can reach to the real heart of problems and ring true for our readers in fantastical ways. It’s a gateway for exploration.

And it’s exciting. I love discovering these things about myself and my writing. I love writing books that explore mental health in fiction.

What have you read recently that had mental health themes either hidden or overt?

By Rebecca Laffar-Smith

Y.A. Science Fiction and Fantasy Author - Escape Reality; Experience Possibility!

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