Once upon a time a writer composed something the internet truly hated (“My Former Friend’s Death Was A Blessing”), joining in unison to decry something that was pro-suicide, exploitative, stigma amplifying and incredibly irresponsible. It was published then made anonymous due to outcry of those with common sense and an awareness of public safety before it was ultimately removed entirely and replaced with an apology.
This piece was problematic on a lot of levels but provides helpful lessons for those who would like to write about mental health.
Know Your Audience
The author of the article tweeted “Write like nobody is reading.” This is good advice if you are penning something in your diary, but if you are writing something about mental health, it is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous.
Mental health writers,
Write as if someone who is struggling with this very topic is going to read it, see themselves in it, and consider getting help. Then, at the end of your article, leave a link where they can get help. People struggling with depression read that awful piece and saw their inner fears confirmed. “If I die, there will be those who will be relieved. If I die, there will be those who will be glad.” Do not write about falling down a rabbit hole without labelling an exit for those who realize the sinking feeling in their stomach is their own descent.
Beware of Cause and Effect
Consider stigma. If someone who does not live with these struggles, what might they think of people who do after reading your piece. Will the words you wrote make someone’s life better or worse? People who live with mental health conditions already face stigma, judgements and assumptions. Are you adding fuel to the fire that burns them? Will what you wrote make the world a better place? Do your words form a caricature or a portrait?
The thing is, what this piece did was:
- Stigmatize people with mental health conditions, but vaguely enough to spread it around.
- Discuss the potentially fatal consequence of mental health, potentially scaring the reader who struggles with this.
- Give no information to access help.
- Reinforce that even if help was available, they may be beyond it. After all, the subject of the essay was, allegedly.
Figure Out Who You Are
Are you a writer, or are you selling tickets to a side show? Are you turning people with mental health conditions into a roadside attraction? Is the space you are creating with your words a big top or a sanctuary? There is a line between exploitation and infotainment and education. People with mental health conditions are still people. We do not exist for your entertainment. Do not participate in the trafficking of human misery for personal gain.
Words are powerful. Reduce stigma and reach out to those who are hurting. Let your message be: You are not alone. Life is worth living.
I have lost friends to suicide. Their deaths were not blessings. They left sadness in their wake. They are missed. It is for nobody to decide if someone else is better off dead.
I struggled with mental health issues myself. I spent five years fighting anorexia and bulimia, depression, anxiety and panic. My life is worth living. I see that now. I use my platform as a writer to reach out to let people know that there is life after these shitty things we go through. I am visible because I used to feel invisible and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.
There is an ethical way to write about mental health. The article discussed is not a good example of how to do it. If you’ve got a platform, find a way to do justice to the stories you are privy to in a way that is not slimy and gross.
You don’t have to be a writer to help.
As someone who struggled with mental illness, and still struggles to a certain extent every day, I ask:
Do not give up on us. We are not beyond help.
Don’t point and laugh. If you’re going to extend a hand, let it be to help someone up.
Don’t just tell us we are lost, show us the way to safety.
Don’t make our diseases your punchline, the lives we live are not a joke.
Talk about mental health issues. Ask questions. Make being in your presence a safe place. Be approachable. Smile at a stranger. Tell people you love they matter. Reach out. Be a decent human being. It costs nothing to be nice.
Guidelines For Sharing Your Story Responsibly
NEDA has great guidelines on mental health writing, check them out here.
Help Is On The Way
These are organizations that I have worked with and promote:
HeadsUpGuys – a resource for men living with depression.
Looking Glass Foundation – hosts regular peer support chats for those living with eating disorders.
What organizations are you aware of that provide support? Link them in the comments, please and help someone who needs it.