Mental health is important, it always has been, but now it is coming to the public’s attention, with it comes a lot of discussion about media representation

I remember when I was a teenager and the Big Bang Theory was all the rage, there was the constantly questioning of, “What is Sheldon?” And the public seemed to collectively agree he was autistic

The show runners at the time denied the statement, saying, “We don’t know what he is.” 

Arguments would later emerge, some people argued it was “bad” representation and din’t represent the community! While others saw themselves reflected in the character. 

And here’s the thing, no one character can ever present a community. Writing mental health requires a lot of research and if you’re going to say something by name, you better know what you’re talking about. So with that in mind, I think the show runners made the right choice, not confirming or denying the theories. 

However, there is the argument that the show “profits” of autism without ever offering true awareness… but it’s impossible to know if the creator of the character was aware of autism and had it in mind or it was merely coincidence. Also, are we really going to now allow media to represent a relatively general series of characteristics (or symptoms) just because we can perceive them as a mental disorder? 

The Big Bang Theory has plenty of issues, but still a number of people found Sheldon relatable and even though the name was never used, it still served the purpose of representation for them. 

So, should we represent mental health in our writing? And should we give it a name when doing so? 

I think the simple answer, and the one we’re all sick of hearing is: depends

If you want to write a story about mental health, obviously name it. And do A LOT of research. Talk to people with the disorder you wish to address. Acknowledge when you’re writing it in an author’s note because sometimes research and terminology changes and be ready to address that later on. 

But what if it’s not the focus but you have a character somewhere who suffers one of these disorders? 

The general rule I follow is if I am 100% confident in my ability to talk and represent this issue, I will not name it. In my own stories, depression, anxiety and PTSD are mentioned and talked about by name (or alternative names that are very clear in some fantasy settings). 

However, other disorders such as ADHD, autism or OCD are not. There may be characters who are intended to represent that collective but the disorder is not mentioned by name. 

But not being mentioned doesn’t mean they are ignored. I usually have characters address it at some point. Character’s speak openly about the symptoms, how they deal with them and the fact that somebody is different. 

They don’t pretend there just “weird”. Naming a mental disorder is just a tag at the end of the day, for a lot of people it’s very helpful, but it isn’t always necessary to close statements fully. 

This also leads into the bonus of when several disorders share symptoms it can be easier for people to feel represented when there is no tag than when there is one. 

Not to mention that many people live with these disorders without ever getting a diagnosis, and their experience is different. Not naming the disorders can lead into characters who are closer to that experience. 

Anyway, this is a reflection piece, it’s based of my experience and the experience of others I’ve talked to. But I’m not a therapist, psychologist or any kind of expert. So if you’ve had a different experience or a similar one and you’d like to add to this conversation, I’d love to hear from you! 

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Happy writing and reading!