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  • Writer's pictureAngela Barton

Mental Health in Fiction

Behind millions of front doors where a perceived glow of perfection shines, live individuals or families struggling with private battles. Magnolia House is one such place.

Few lives go untouched by mental health problems, either their own or a loved one’s. As a writer I feel it’s important to make fictional characters multi-dimensional. Yes, they laugh, love and enjoy their lives, but not always. It would be unrealistic. Characters should face dilemmas, illness (including mental illness) and broken relationships.

My protagonist, Rowan, must confront a devastating change to her life in the opening chapters of Magnolia House, while her sister-in-law, Libby, suffers from depression that manifests in the form of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I think when handled with care, a character with mental illness can not only enliven a storyline but also open readers’ eyes to new experiences and perspectives. But psychology and psychiatry are complex and evolving disciplines, and as a writer introducing a character with mental health problems, I take it seriously. It's a responsibility and an obligation to avoid caricatures, and most importantly, to get the facts correct. I once read a book where a character with depression was feeling better the day after taking anti-depressive medication. This inaccuracy immediately spoilt the book for me. This type of medication can take 4-6 weeks to work effectively. Spreading misinformation does everyone a disservice.

Although common, mental illness isn’t the norm, so a writer must find a way for their readers to relate to their character, despite the illness and because of it. To feel better, Libby spends money she doesn’t have and finds herself in a lot of debt, all the while hiding it from her husband. The choosing, the wrapping and the buying, gives her the high she’s seeking, but immediately she’s racked with guilt and anxiety at the money she’s spent. She needs to feel better, so she enters another shop and the cycle continues. It’s behaviour as real as an eating disorder or self-harming. It’s unlikely to stop until the root cause is discovered and worked on. Libby struggles to contain her illness and appears to be fine for the sake of her loved ones, until the day comes when she has no option but to ask for help.

Stories with characters suffering with mental illness work best when they are written around a person and their relationships, not writing about the illness itself. It doesn’t take pages of obsessive thoughts to deliver the message of an altered mental state. Mental illness can be debilitating but it doesn’t define a person. That job still rests with the writer and their huge challenge of not leaving the reader behind.

Magnolia House isn’t a story full of gloom and negative behaviours. So many of my reviews mention Mason (Ace), another of my characters in the book. He makes them laugh out loud and they say that he balances the darker storyline perfectly, which is a huge relief to me that they feel that way. Of course there’s plenty of romance too when Ace’s handsome and talented brother, James, arrives home from working abroad.

If you’re struggling emotionally, there are people who can help. Mental illness in nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Your GP may be the first person you talk to about your mental health problems. If you have a good relationship with your doctor, you may find it helpful just to know there is someone you can talk to about the feelings you are having. Your GP may refer you to specialist services if he/she feels they will help you.

  • The Samaritans offer emotional support 24 hours a day - in full confidence. Call 116 123 - it's FREE

  • Call the MIND information line on 0300 123 3393 or email

  • For support in a crisis, Text Shout to 85258.

  • Advice and information 10am-2pm Mon-Fri. Call RETHINK on 0300 5000 927

  • You may find it helpful to talk to your partner, a relative or a friend about your problems. They may be concerned about you and welcome the opportunity to hear what you have to say.

  • You may also find it helpful to contact your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau for advice about benefits, debt problems, legal issues and local services. The Citizens Advice Bureau website has a directory listing its local offices.

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