Mental illness is something that affects us all. And for many, the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse. For many of us, we turn to fiction for answers, and that’s why today I’m thrilled to present an academic-style essay on how the portrayal of mental health in fantasy books can provide an outlet for readers.
This post has been written by professional counsellor and writer, Lucy A. McLaren. All throughout the pandemic, Lucy has been working on the frontline. She’s witnessed first-hand the decline in people’s mental health. And as a lover of fantasy, she kindly offered to put this truly insightful piece together.
Treating Mental Illness With Compassion
The mental health crisis that’s gripping the world has been scoffed at by some. They write it off as being part of the ‘woke’ or ‘snowflake’ agenda, without having any real idea of how it actually feels to experience the likes of stress, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Just because an illness is invisible and insidious doesn’t lessen its severity. If anything, our mental health is more important than our physical health. If we can’t motivate ourselves, then our physicality will inevitably be impacted.
One of the best things about fiction is its ability to explore and tackle real-world issues. Mental health in fantasy books is something that’s becoming more and more prevalent. In fact, I even explored mental health issues of depression and self-doubt in my debut novel, Pariah’s Lament. As someone who has experienced this too, I was keen to explore them in the story.
Fantasy Books That Explore Mental Health
Before we dive right into Lucy’s piece, I wanted to point you in the direction of a few fantasy books that explore mental illness.
Through the perspectives of two characters, Edvar and Isy, I explore self-doubt, depression and anxiety.
The story zooms in on how these characters struggle with their mental health, how they battle through and in the end overcome their challenges.
Every Heart A Doorway | Seanan McGuire
This is a tale about those that have slipped through the cracks of society. And in excellent paranormal and fantasy fashion, it’s those forgotten children that experience truly bizarre things.
The book explores feelings of belonging and does so through excellently crafted characters.
Borderline | Mishell Baker
As mental health in fantasy books go, this one is a fascinating exploration. The protagonist, Millie, has two prosthetic legs. She lost her own trying to kill herself after a breakup. She also suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
If you’re looking for a compelling urban fantasy heroine, with a story that explores mental illness, look no further.
Phenomenology: The Individual Perspective
I want to start this post by introducing (or perhaps reintroducing) you to the concept of phenomenology.
Aside from being a word I have to say phonetically every time I type it, phenomenology is the philosophical “study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view” (Stanford Encyclopaedia, 2003).
From a mental health perspective, phenomenology was embraced by Carl Rogers (the founding father of Person-Centred Therapy and a personal hero of mine) as a means to acknowledge the individuality with which we all see the world. Basically, we are each an authority only on our own experiences—no one else’s.
I love this concept. As an author, it’s why I like to include multiple perspectives within my stories—to give readers the different insights into the world that each character provides. After all, it is undeniable that we all have our own unique perspectives on life, and our own internal struggles through which to navigate.
The Struggles Of Mental Health
Often caused by traumatic or adverse experiences, many of us battle against feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, impostor syndrome, hopelessness, and any number of other mental health issues. No matter how similar we may feel our experiences are to another person’s, no matter if we share similar diagnoses or thoughts or feelings, we cannot ever fully put ourselves in their shoes.
As Carl Rogers (1961: 23) said, “Experience is… the highest authority”; on a completely personal level, it is what dictates how we live our lives, what colours our thoughts, feelings, and actions every day.
Yet we humans are inherently social beings. To state that we can never truly understand one another may feel isolating, an impassable boundary preventing us from really seeing those around us. It may seem like a lonely concept. I would argue, however, that the idea of phenomenology makes it even more important that we strive to understand others—and, in doing so, seek to better understand ourselves.
As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk (2014:79) noted, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives”.
So, in what ways can we forge such connections with others? For me, storytelling that explores issues we are experiencing within our own lives and world is one such method. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that “the most important tool we as humans have to tackle reality is… the allegorical story” (Webb, 2007).
Mental Health In Fantasy Books
The popularity and cultural impact of the fantasy genre cannot be refuted. It has created the means of connection for millions of people across the world, with online forums discussing theories and favourite characters, fans creating artwork, their own works of fiction and costumes to be proudly displayed at conventions.
Through the medium of fantasy, readers may take a “hypothetical situation” and create connections with “their own social reality” (Flanagan, 2014), thereby enriching their lives.
I’ve recently found myself considering the representation of mental health within fantasy novels. As a passionate reader and writer of the genre, I’ve found myself more and more drawn to stories that put us in the viewpoint of realistic, flawed humans who go through mental struggles and journeys as much as they do physical.
An example which springs immediately to mind is Robin Hobb’s Captain Kennit (Liveship Traders trilogy), a man (and not a very nice one, to be frank) who has an incredibly troubled past and whose actions and thoughts are direct results of this.
A famous example is Frodo in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, who is believed to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following his ordeal in transporting the ring to Mordor; as Milos (1998) noted, his “post-Quest life followed a typical course for the aftermath of trauma.”
How Can Writers Explore Mental Illness In Books?
As an author, I have sought to explore such issues within my own debut novel, A Child’s Awakening (releasing in May 2022). The four viewpoint characters, Evelyn, Raif, Hector and Commander Sulemon, have all been through difficult experiences and deal with those in varying ways.
Evelyn struggles with past trauma that causes ongoing feelings of anxiety and impacts upon the way in which she interacts with those around her.
Raif has suffered immense loss and attempts to work through feelings of grief while attempting to protect his young sister.
Hector’s past is the least explored in this book, but we will see in the second book how his childhood impacted upon his current behaviour.
Commander Sulemon experienced trauma and loss as a young boy, leading to the internal struggles we see him grappling with throughout the story. It was important for me, as an author and counsellor, to depict the mental health issues within my characters in a realistic way, whilst also considering the phenomenology of each individual.
As someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety myself, I know that I have found comfort from my favourite fantasy stories through connecting with fictional characters who have experienced similar thoughts and feelings to me, no matter that they occupy worlds sometimes far removed from our own.
Writing, Mental Health and COVID-19
As Jones (2020) outlined, we do not need to see a “mirror image of reality” in fantasy books in order to be provided with “compelling stories about serious social and political issues”. I believe that now, arguably more than ever, we need to hold an awareness of mental health issues on both a personal and societal level within these stories. We have all been through a lengthy period of uncertainty this past 18 months (COVID-19 being only one such aspect of this), which has brought its own unique challenges for each person.
To consider the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, there has been an evident spike in mental health issues. Panchal et al (2021) found that the average percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder rose from 11% in Jan-June 2019 to 41.1% in January 2021.
For young people, there have been similar implications in mental health. Young Minds (2021) surveyed those aged between 13-25 and found that 67% believed the pandemic would have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. This can undoubtedly be labelled a traumatic time for many (Campbell, 2020; Prideaux, 2021).
As a counsellor, I have seen an increase in mental health issues including feelings of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, alongside self-harming behaviours in my clients. Yet I am also acutely aware that being able to access counselling is not possible for everyone. This made me wonder what other options are available to help people cope with such thoughts and feelings.
Coping With Mental Health Issues Through Books
In coping with feelings of trauma, van der Kolk (2014: 17) outlined that the utilisation of the imagination is key, noting that without it “there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future…” What better way to engage the imagination than through reading?
At a time when many have felt the impact of trauma, have felt out of control and overwhelmed, perhaps one answer lies in seeing characters we cherish working through their own feelings of anxiety, depression, or trauma (or any other mental health issue that may be explored).
Dill-Shackleford et al (2016: 636-639) explored “how meaningful fictional narratives fulfil important psychosocial, cognitive, and even existential needs” and can allow us to explore and process “our social thoughts and emotions”. For younger people especially, such meaningful narratives around mental health could provide the opportunity to address these issues head-on (Montgomery, 2019). Additionally, reading fictional stories has been found to increase empathy in readers where they are “emotionally transported” into a story (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013).
For me, this means I must continue to strive for an emotional connection with readers (and I will continue to search for this in books I read, as well) by exploring meaningful, realistic narratives around mental health that are pertinent to real life.
In this way, I hope to provide not only the opportunity for readers to become more comfortable with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences but for their levels of empathy and connection with others to increase.
I feel very strongly that this is one way for us to begin healing after an incredibly difficult time. As Coccia (2012) noted, in fantasy we can be provided with “a sense of certainty for an uncertain future”. And I think that’s just what we need right now.
About The Author
Lucy A. McLaren is a fantasy author whose debut novel, A CHILD’S AWAKENING, releases in May 2022. Born and raised in Essex, England, she has spent many years since childhood delving into fantasy worlds through reading, gaming, and films. When not writing, she works as a counsellor for children and young people.
Find out more about Lucy on her website.
Or follow on Twitter – @lucyamclaren
Or Instagram – lucy_a_mclaren
Join An Online Writing Group
If you’d like more help with your writing, particularly with working on getting it just right when it comes to portraying mental health in your fantasy books, why not join my online writing group?
It’s open only to those who join my community of writers, and currently, there are around 180 active writers networking, sharing and improving their craft together.
To join yourself, simply click the button below.
Read More Writing Guides
I have a bunch of other fantasy writing guides that you may find useful. Below, I’ve listed a few.
- Religion In Fantasy
- Natural Worldbuilding – How To Build A Fantasy World
- Fantasy Archery
- How To Create A Fantasy Castle
- For more writing tips and guides, head here.
I also have some guides that focus on the mental challenges of writing. Again, links below:
- Bal, P. M. & Veltkamp, M. (2013) How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation, PLOS ONE 8(1): e55341.
- Campbell, L. (2020) The World is Experiencing Mass Trauma from COVID-19: What You Can Do. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/the-world-is-experiencing-mass-trauma-from-covid-19-what-you-can-do [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Coccia, A. (2012) Why fantasy matters. [ONLINE] Available at: https://ndsmcobserver.com/2012/04/why-fantasy-matters/ [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Dill-Shackleford, K. E., Hopper-Losenicky, K. & Vinney, C. (2016) Connecting the dots between fantasy and reality: The social psychology of our engagement with fictional narrative and its functional value, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, May 2016.
- Flanagan, V. (2014) Children’s fantasy literature: why escaping reality is good for kids. [ONLINE] Available at: https://theconversation.com/childrens-fantasy-literature-why-escaping-reality-is-good-for-kids-22307 [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Jones, E. (2020) Sci-Fi and Fantasy Build Mental Resiliency in Young Readers. [ONLINE] Available at: https://daily.jstor.org/science-fiction-builds-mental-resiliency-young-readers/ [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Milos, K. (1998) “Too Deeply Hurt: Understanding Frodo’s Decision to Depart”. Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 36, Nov. 1998, pp. 17-23.
- Montgomery, H. (2019) Can reading really improve your mental health? [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190527-can-fiction-really-improve-your-mental-health [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C. & Garfield, R. (2021) The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/ [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Prideaux, E. (2021) How to heal the ‘mass trauma’ of Covid-19. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210203-after-the-covid-19-pandemic-how-will-we-heal [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Houghton Mifflin.
- Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (2003) Phenomenology. [ONLINE] Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/ [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Penguin Random House.
- Webb, B. (2007) The real purpose of fantasy. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/apr/23/bridgingthegapswhyweneed [Accessed 5 July 2021]
- Young Minds (2021) Coronavirus: Impact on Young People with Mental Health Needs. [ONLINE] Available at: https://youngminds.org.uk/about-us/reports/coronavirus-impact-on-young-people-with-mental-health-needs/ [Accessed 5 July 2021]
If you’d like more help with anything covered in this guide on mental health in fantasy books, please contact me or join my writing group!