Stories that explore mental health issues with empathy and nuance are pretty dang important.
They can help people who have mental illnesses feel less isolated. They can reduce stigma and change attitudes. And as a person with anxiety, I attest to the fact that proper representation can make seeking help less daunting.
However, being a storyteller or an artist that discusses mental illness can be overwhelming. What if you get it wrong? What if your well-intentioned art is ineffective or harmful to the people you’re representing?
If you’ve ever pondered these questions, don’t panic. To get some advice, I chatted with Brennan Lee Mulligan, Dimension 20’s creator. Dimension 20 is a show where actors roleplay Dungeons and Dragons games.
In the first season, Brennan says that he worked Siobhan Thompson to tell the story of Adaine, “a heroic protagonist” and a “character that was dealing with a mental illness, specifically in this case anxiety.” Brennan has continued platforming mental health stories, with the upcoming Tiny Heist having an “extremely heartfelt” arc for a character dealing with a form of depression.
I also spoke with headspace, an Australian mental health organisation, about how artists can effectively portray mental illnesses.
So, without any further adieu, here’s their rad advice:
1. Avoid using derogatory language and problematic wording
There are a lot of words used to describe mental illnesses that are hurtful and potentially damaging. “A misuse of words when talking about mental health, identity, background or experiences can have a profound impact on another young person, as well as on their family and friends,” says headspace.
If you’re unsure if a specific word or phrase is problematic or not, then check out this piece by Mindframe, about preferred language to use when communicating about mental ill-health. Mindframe is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Health and provides some excellent resources on how to discuss mental health issues.
2. Look after your collaborators
You may collaborate with other artists when you’re telling mental health stories. In Dimension 20, Brennan is not only the creator; he’s also the dungeon master. That means he narrates the world for the improvising actors and performs as the minor characters. Because he and his collaborators are improving discussions about mental illnesses, it means no one quite knows the conversation’s direction.
To combat this type of uncertainty, Brennan has a safety strategy in place. The Dimension 20 cast has cards they can flip if they’re ever feeling uncomfortable. Brennan says that if anyone’s upset with the improvisation, they can “flip the card over, and that scene just stops, and we move on.” This brilliant solution means a performer wouldn’t have to verbally interrupt the improvisation if they were feeling distressed.
If you’re collaborating on something that discusses mental health, this strategy could potentially help out your team.
3. Be empathic and research with rigour
Brennan believes that to tell nuanced and honest stories about mental illness, you need to be empathic. But he also states that being empathic is not enough, you have to research what you’re discussing. Brennan says, “Obviously proceed with empathy, like, come from a place of having a good heart, and with as much heart as you can muster. However, empathy, meaning your emotional good faith…must be administered by actual hard work and research.”
So to put this advice into practical terms, Brennan recommends researching any marginalised voice you’re representing, more than the other elements in your artwork. If you’re studying virtual reality for your realistic sci-fi, make sure you’re diving deeper into any mental health topics that it’s depicting.
Headspace also states the importance of education and research. They say that being educated about mental health issues and the benefits of seeking help can combat their stigma.
4. Hire consultants and chat with people who have mental illnesses
As a professional dungeon master, Brennan is able to talk to consultants about topics like this.
“It is always the best investment of our time and resources,” he says. If you’re an emerging artist, you may not have the dollarydoos to hire a consultant. However, there are still plenty of people that would be happy to discuss your work. If you want to check if you’re successfully discussing a specific mental illness, maybe gently ask someone with the lived experience, or do a callout in a writer’s group. Perhaps someone could help you over a coffee.
And headspace states that everyone should spend time getting to know people impacted by mental health issues. They say that “understanding their experiences helps to change negative attitudes, reduce fear, and social distance.”
Well, there you have it folks! I hope that this advice helps you create the positive mental health stories that we all deserve. Just remember to be empathic, open, and well-researched. I genuinely look forward to seeing your story, if you choose to tell it, wherever it may be.