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.

The power of words – Should we be conscious of the words we use when talking about mental health?

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Words have power, you only have to think back to your time in the playground and someone used words to bully you. I don’t know about your parents but mine constantly reminded me that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me, was a complete lie.

Those words still hurt me today over 25 years later and pop back into my mind when I am feeling particularly low.

Applying this to everyday life I am beginning to realise that the words I am using when I talk about mental health may need some conscious thought. I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to cause other’s distress and I don’t want to feel the shame associated with causing someone else to feel bad. I equally don’t want to be adding to the stigma associated with mental health.

So here are my top tips I am going to apply when I am talking about mental health (including my own) for what I have learnt so far:

  • The way mental health is discussed is constantly changing – the words that may have been used to describe a situation in the past are not necessarily the most descriptive or accurate now, it is our responsibility to look at what words are being used and if we agree with their use.
  • Mindful discussions of mental health – we need to be conscious about what we say, think about the consequences of the words before they come out but also don’t bet yourself up if someone challenges you as it is another opportunity for us to learn
  • Tone – the way we say things is equally important to the use of words if you use a particular tone that can be observed as being insincere or dismissive means that no matter what you are saying the discussion could be harming others.
  • Word choice – now this is often extremely difficult, what words can be used? In what context are you using them? We wouldn’t say “I feel so cancer filled today” but people do say “I am so depressed today because [insert sports team] lost their game last night.” It shows flippancy and fails to understand the full extent of depression. I hold my hands up and admit that I am guilty of such things, such as making statements like “I think Laurence is on the Autistic Spectrum” or “don’t be so OCD” without fully understanding the implications.
  • Honesty – if you are not sure about something then ask, if you are talking to someone about their mental health then they will probably feel like you are respecting them by acknowledging you don’t know everything. I don’t know how many times I have tried to explain borderline personality disorder to someone – I never take offence I am often flattered that the individual feels able to ask.

I think I will add to this over time, as well as additional information on the do’s and don’ts of writing characters in fiction with mental health conditions (although I am struggling with feeling qualified enough to make such a list) but I can identify my opinions about what I prefer when reading fiction!

Starting the Mental Health Book Club Podcast

After being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2012 the first thing I did after getting out of the hospital and having some time to reflect on what was happening was to reach out to the world of books. My mission was to learn as much about this mental health issue as possible and I consumed endless words from fiction to non-fiction, internet articles and online support groups. Some were really helpful and others not so much! Shortly after the BPD diagnosis Is was blind-sided with the news that I had relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and my life fell apart. The only thing that really remained was the fact I always had my nose in a book.

For those of you who don’t know much about MS, it is a condition of the central nervous system where the immune system mistakes the cells that insulate nerve cells – the myelin as bad and attacks it. Resulting in problems with coordination, eyesight, balance, pain, fatigue, numbness, heat sensitivity to name a few. Once again, my life was turned upside down and for someone who had no clear idea of who they were and the need of changing countries (I was about to apply for citizenship in Australia) I ended up back in the UK struggling.

I meandered around for two years feeling lost and alone and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. In summer 2017 after my husband introducing me to the world of podcasts I started to feel excited again. The wealth of information available was immense but yet no one was talking about books with mental health issues and so for some crazy reason I thought maybe I could do that!

So once again I turned to one of my favourite past times – books, blogs and now podcasts to find out how to start a podcast. I jumped in purchased a microphone and learnt how to use Audacity for editing and jumped straight in.

I twisted Becky’s arm and thankfully she agreed to join me as a co-host and we are now up to Episode 41 and closing in on our one-year anniversary.

Yet, I felt there was still something missing and then came up with the idea of this blog. Whilst I am not an expert on writing or mental health, I still felt that for people who want to write about those with mental illness they should do so in a way that doesn’t aid the stigma that people like me have to face as a result of their mental illness.