Researching Mental Health in Fiction Writing

Researching Mental Health in Fiction Writing
July 7, 2017 No Comments » For Authors, Writing Advice Stacy Overby

I want to talk about something serious this time, so no glib starts here today. My subject: mental health in fiction. There’s a ton to cover with this topic and writing mental health needs to be done right or you’ll risk offending your readers. Even with research, it may happen, but at least you did your due diligence by putting in the work to understand the disorder you’re writing about. The big key is research. Don’t rely on what you may have seen in mass media. Mental illness is much bigger than that.

Consider Your Reasoning

Now, before you start your research, consider why you want your character to have a mental health issue. “Just because” or “It would make the story more interesting” aren’t good reasons. Think about it, would you pick out heart disease or diabetes for your character for the same reasons? Probably not, so don’t do it with mental health issues. Does your reason play into the plot or character development? Those are good reasons for including a mental illness into the story.

Pick Your Issue

Now that you’ve established the appropriateness of a mental health concern, the research can begin. My suggestion is to start by looking at broad overviews of different diagnoses. You can, and should, include things like trauma, discrimination, and poverty on the list. But wait, you say, those aren’t mental health issues. You’re right, but behavioral symptoms associated with these social-emotional issues often look a lot like mental health concerns. One of these may be a better fit than a mental health issue. Another option that can fit, and is often overlooked and/or misunderstood, is an organic brain disorder like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or Autism.

Research Time

Once you think you know the general mental health issue, social-emotional issue, or organic brain disorder you want to write about, then get specific about your research. Check out websites like National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Institute of Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the medical academies (i.e. American Academy of Pediatrics). Also, there are state levels of some of these organizations. Be sure you understand the information you find. Talk to or read about real life people with the particular issue you’re researching. Understand how the disorder or issue affects daily life, how they react under stress, and how it looks when someone hits their breaking point.

Writing Time

Now you’re ready to write your story. As you write, don’t be afraid to continue your research. Your goal is not to be an expert on the issue you’re writing about, but you should work to make it as accurate as you can. The other thing your ongoing research provides is the opportunity to adjust your character’s development appropriately. Yes, this is a fictional person, but having a well written mental health issue can add a tremendous amount of depth by writing it will.

Special Alpha and Beta Readers

You’re not done yet. This next step is important, arguably as important as the research itself. Connect with people who have experience with the mental health issue you’re writing about and have them read over your polished work to give you feedback. While every person experiencing a mental health issue has a different experience, there will be some common threads. The people you connect with can help you figure how well you’ve treated the subject in your story.

Information Sources

Now, please, don’t give up. I get this feels like a daunting task to write about mental health issues. In a way it is, but we spend an awful lot of time researching other subjects for our writing, don’t we? This is no different. Again, this is not about being an expert in your chosen mental health issue or pleasing everyone. It is about making sure we treat mental health issues as respectfully as we do any other subject we research for our writing.

Here are some good websites to help you get started in your research:

You can also message me here or pop by my blog and shoot me questions you may have. I can’t guarantee I can answer them, but I will sure give it a shot or help you find the answer.

Let me leave you with this—about 1 in 5 people in the United States deals with a mental health issue every year. Chances are you know someone with a mental health issue if you aren’t one of those affected. How would you or your loved one want people to think of you? With as much misinformation as exists out there, this is why the research is so important.

Stacy Overby Stacy Overby is a columnist and graphic designer at Her short stories and poems have been featured in multiple anthologies, online, and in lit journals. Scath Oran is her first solo poetry collection, and her debut full length novel, Tattoos: A Black Ops Novel is coming out soon. She is the program director for an adolescent dual diagnosis treatment program by day and an author by night. Her day job provides inspiration for many of her stories. When not at work or writing, she and her husband are playing with their son, hiking, camping, or involved in other outdoor activities – if it is not too cold. She, along with her social media contacts, can be found at

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