What do I look for in non-fiction mental health writing?

After much deliberation, I have decided to split this post into two. One about non-fiction, one about fiction. These are just my thoughts about the topics, what I look out for and enjoy whilst reading.

For the podcast, we have now read 17 books that would come under the heading of non-fiction memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, journals, self-help etc. A list of them can be found here.

The things that I look for are:

  1. Additional research on mental health conditions
  2. Accuracy in symptoms, treatment and therapy outcomes
  3. Practical tips that can be applied in life
  4. Emotive language to help you understand the topic
  5. Use of storytelling techniques
  6. Current trends and statistics
  7. A clear message
  8. Personal experiences
  1. Additional research on mental health topics

Even though I live with a variety of mental health conditions (Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and Binge Eating Disorder). I know what it is like for me to live with them, but I wouldn’t have the knowledge or understanding to talk on everyone else’s behalf!

Just because one person experiences something in one way doesn’t mean someone else will. So having a deeper understanding of the mental health issue you are talking about above what you have personally experienced is helpful for the reader. E.g. I loved the way that the books we have read on Bipolar are all different with how they have experienced the mood fluctuations and often say that this may not be the case for everyone with Bipolar Affective Disorder.

2. Accuracy in symptoms, treatment and therapy outcomes

One thing that sometimes gets to me is the unrealistic expectations that some books give their readers.

“Read this book and your anxiety will be cured”. If only it was that simple.

I think making sure that you have your facts in order is important. There is nothing worse than over promising and under delivering particularly when it comes to mental health. Even if it sucks to say that you may need therapy for years (I myself have been doing therapy for over 6 years and still need help).

3. Practical tips that can be applied in life

I like practical tips that I can use in my life day to day to help with my own personal wellbeing. Gratitude lists (Stop Thinking Like That by Jason Hyland) and Doughnut Moments (The Resilience Doughnut – The Secret of Strong Adults by Lyn Worsley) have been so helpful that I continue to use them today.

4. Emotive language to help you understand the topic

I find that books are the one way that I can live in someone else’s shoes for a short time. So using language that helps draw on my empathic side is great. As a result of reading all these books I think I have a new appreciation to what it is like to be living with certain mental health conditions.

5. Use of storytelling techniques

Now, this is something that I am finding challenging with my own writing endeavours but feel is important. Whilst I have been working on my own mental health memoir about my own struggles I have come to realise not everyone will be that interested in some of the things that happened to me. But this can be changed with the style I choose to write it.

Ensuring that there is a strong plot (beginning, middle and end) draws people into your story and even adding dialogue (particularly in a memoir) can really enhance the enjoyment. An example of this can be seen in Love and Remission by Annie Belasco.

6. Current trends and statistics

This can be incorporated into any kind of book but I find this particularly interesting in non-fiction books. It adds to the understanding of the context of a mental health condition.

Understanding the difficulties being faced by the modern health care system, the rates of inmates imprisoned who are experiencing mental health conditions and male suicide rates all give an indication of what is happening. For me when I read some of these statistics it not only shocks me but also prompts me into wanting to do more to try and help the situation.

Fantastic examples include: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth, The Stranger on the Bridge by Jonny Benjamin and Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors by Catherine Elton.

7. A clear message

There are often a few things I want to get out of reading books about people fighting mental health issues, one is the realisation that I am not alone. Nor is it anything to be ashamed of. For years I hid my mental health and never really felt what I may consider the “truthful” me. So finally realising that I am not alone has helped so much. There is a community out there that I feel I can talk openly about what I am going through and that has at times been a life saver.

Hope is another big thing that I want to get out of a book and is something I hope that my book will eventually provide to others. Although as I write this it makes me feel like a fraud. Historically mental health issues were dealt with by people being institutionalised but a lot has changed and there are so many new treatment options available. If I can some how offer hope to someone with the message that life with BPD can get better than that is something I would love to be able to do.

8. Personal experiences

The last thing that really relates to self-help is the incorporation of the authors own personal experience. If you are making suggestions about things that I can do to improve my wellbeing then I would like to know that you have tried them and are still using them!

If you expect me to get up everyday run 10 miles, drink a green smoothy and meditate for 8 hours I probably am not going to do it because it’s not achievable. But if you can give me an idea of how changing a thought pattern or incorporating more compassion into your life has changed things then I am up for that.

So, this is my list. As I read more books I may come back to it and update it with other things that have jumped out at me. But this is my first attempt of actually identifying things that I liked, and I have to admit it feels a bit weird!

Until next time remember it’s okay not to be okay and if you not okay talk.

2 Replies to “What do I look for in non-fiction mental health writing?”

  1. This is a unique, very helpful post! I used to read quite a few blogs (mental health-themed ones as well as writing-themed blogs) regularly and I never spotted anything like this topic! It’s such a great idea! I’d strongly suggest you consider submitting this post to some mental health organizations that have a large audience, such as Bipolar UK, International Bipolar Foundation * and maybe Bipolar Scotland or Mind.

    * http://ibpf.org/webform/blogging-application

    You can submit a blog post on a one-time basis

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