Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Writers 1: Why Should I Care?

For reasons I won’t go into I could not give the talk I was scheduled to at the Nine Worlds London Geekfest . Instead, I’ve decided to do a series of posts on the same topic.

Trigger Warning:

Up to 1 in 4 people can be affected by mental illness so if any of the topics discussed here affect you contact your health professional (General Practitioner in the UK).


This is for creators of speculative fiction. The idea is to improve depiction of the mentally ill in narratives like film, books, music videos etc. It is just a primer, therefore it will not go into too much detail.

Spoiler Alert:

Here there be spoilers. Deal with it. I will try not to reference anything currently showing in cinemas, but I make no promises.

Part 1: Why Should I Care?

This is the easiest question to answer.

Your portrayal of mental illness affects stigma

We can define Stigma in this context as an attribute that is deeply discrediting and reduces the bearer from a whole person to a tainted, discounted one (adapted from Goffman, 1963). The word is of Greek origin meaning ‘brand, mark or tattoo’. The stigma is usually an identifier for a series of negative preconceptions. For many people their first exposure to mental illness is through mass media and this shapes their perception for a long time. Many of the portrayals are either negative or of the “freak show” variety where the illness itself is seen as entertainment.

Creators have a responsibility to seek verisimilitude, not to reinforce stereotypes. I once saw a negative and inaccurate portrayal of mental illness on a television show. I wrote to the company responsible and the response I got was: “drama productions are not always best served by meticulous attention to detail”. 

When it comes to mental illness you must absolutely pay meticulous attention to detail. Misconceptions and preconceptions are the reason funding is inadequate, why people who suffer from mental illness do not wish to come forward, why people with gender dysphoria suffer minority stress, why the mentally ill are targets of physical and verbal violence.

As writers and creators:

  • You are shaping communal consciousness in all kinds of ways, culture, race, gender, socio-economic etc.
  • Everything you write affects the impression of a reader of at least one thing.
  • It may reinforce previous impressions or introduce new paradigms. It may inject curiosity about a particular aspect of reality. It may have a positive effect on how such issues are perceived.


Goffman, E: Notes on the management of spoiled identity Simon and Schuster Inc; New York: 1963.


Part 2: What is Mental Illness





Filed under mental_illness, non_fiction, psychiatry, writer, writing

2 responses to “Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Writers 1: Why Should I Care?

  1. Pingback: Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Creators: Contents page | Long Time After Midnight

  2. And here I was thinking I’d followed you long ago. Rectified that now.

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