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Mental Health Representation in Science Fiction & Fantasy


When you think of mental health books, what comes to mind? Maybe self-help or general nonfiction books come to mind. Now, how many of those are fantasy or science-fiction? I think it’s crucial that we can both read and write fantasy and science-fiction that discuss and accurately represent mental health.


Mental health issues affect more people than we might imagine. Issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and more are struggles that millions of people endure every day. Yet representation for those issues in SFF is rare.


Why is that? After all, many SFF books focus on characters dealing with terrifying, life-changing events. Those events should affect them, but that’s not always the case. Watching characters shrug off trauma is disheartening because we all know healing isn’t so easy in real life.


Of course, the exciting thing about fantasy is it isn’t real life. However, one of my favorite things to see in SFF work is characters in fantastic settings and circumstances dealing with real-world problems.


Mental health representation in SFF allows us to view issues we face in an objective light. When we are reading about a character struggling with their mental health, it is easy to sympathize with them. It’s harder to sympathize with ourselves. However, seeing a character struggling with issues like our own can open our eyes to this dilemma. If we can show this character sympathy, we can show ourselves the same grace.


Although it is important to see characters struggle, it is also inspiring to watch them heal. One of my comfort books is a fantasy novel that deals with a character healing from and learning to manage depression and PTSD. She does not just get over it. What I love most about the book is that it does not minimize her pains and struggles, but focuses on the issues and her recovery. For that reason, I re-read it every single time I face mental health struggles.


When it comes to writing, I’ve always heard, “Write what you know.” Now, I don’t always follow this advice. I’ve never ridden on the back of a dragon, but that certainly doesn’t stop me from writing stories about characters who do! Yet, I think it can be therapeutic to write about characters who deal with the same mental health struggles as me, and I’m not the only writer who practices this.


Last year, I read A Song of Wraiths & Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, and it made me realize how rare it is to see characters with anxiety disorders in fantasy! Brown states in an interview with Nelson Agency that she first got the idea for the book when she realized she “had never read a fantasy novel where a character’s mental illness was not used as a metaphor or villainized in some way”. She mentions that she drew on her own experiences with mental health: “As someone who has dealt with anxiety for most of my life, I wanted to see a Black character who reflected this struggle but still got to be the hero of their story”.


Similarly, T.J. Klune says that writing helped him find “a way to channel these dark thoughts into something more productive”. He also notes that many of his characters have “shades” of him in them. Several of his books, such as Under the Whispering Door, The House in the Cerulean Sea, and Wolfsong focus on characters that deal with anxiety, depression, and many other topics related to mental health.


Rivers Solomon, author of The Deep and indie-published An Unkindness of Ghosts, similarly uses their fantasy setting to reflect on real-world issues related to mental health. In an article titled “Mad Black Girl,” Solomon discusses the fact that Black people are hospitalized for mental health issues twice as often as white people, noting that this is unsurprising, “considering the overlap between mental illness and poverty, trauma, neglect, racism, and sexism”. Both of their works comment on slavery, its long-term effects on mental health, and generational trauma.


Although we may not realize it, our favorite SFF stories teach us real-world values, provide us with inspiration for our hardest days, and open our eyes to mental health struggles we might not understand from personal experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used “Journey before destination” or another quote from a SFF book as a self-soothing mantra when I’m struggling. So, it is important that we can learn about and connect with mental health issues in these stories, too.


Mental health representation in SFF also allows us to learn, giving us insight into mental health disorders we ourselves might not deal with. It allows us to see our own experiences and struggles in a different light. But most importantly, mental health representation in our favorite genre reminds us we are never alone.

 

About the Author: Ashleigh Worley is a student completing her BA in English Language & Literature. She loves reading and writing and aspires to a career in the publishing industry. In her free time, she can be found playing video games, cuddling with her cats, or going to car shows with her dad.

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