Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Mental health in literature: fact vs fiction

Which is more helpful? Fact or Fiction?

It depends which lens you would like to filter your perspective through. Medical books will, undoubtedly, examine the scientific reasoning behind a specific health struggle, incorporating both logic and biology to determine the root cause of mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Fiction novels, however, will naturally explore mental health through the path of a narrative, including friendship and family support networks that may conflict or compare with your own familial struggles with mental health. Where one type of literature can place the topic into perspective, and provide a haven of familiarity, the other can create an element of security by answering the methodical questions fictional literature may not have the extensive knowledge to achieve.

Since its invention, fictional storytelling has always served as a reminder that we are not alone

Fiction books can be more relatable for someone with a mental illness, mostly embedding the topic in a realistic setting with external factors – such as family, school, work, and friends – fighting for dominance in a busy, chaotic life. It can portray someone living with a certain mental illness, or depict the emotions of an observer of the mental illness. The inclusion of these components can make the fictional text seem more like fact; it can make the fiction seem real.

Since its invention, fictional storytelling has always served as a reminder that we are not alone; that we are not facing these problems, not trying to leap over these obstacles, by ourselves. It is more relatable, more personal, more idiosyncratic than a generalised medical book. But, it may leave questions unanswered. Overriding questions, queries, worries, like ‘Why? How? When? Who?’ may not be addressed in a novel, which may end up leaving the reader with more concern than reassurance.

The purpose behind each type of literature is relevant in determining how mental health is depicted. Medical books are based on fact; their purpose is to inform and to explain. They can tell you where something came from, how long it may have been manifesting, when or if it is treatable, where to go to seek help, and how it can be prevented or ways to reduce it.

More novels including discussions on mental health are being published worldwide

Fiction adds in the element of entertainment that medical books are missing. This can either be a benefit or a drawback depending on your own views of mental health. Would you rather it be discussed bluntly and logically, or do you prefer a more poetic, euphemistic method of conversing? Or a combination of the two?

More novels including discussions on mental health are being published worldwide. The coverage and attention they are gaining is helpful in raising awareness for mental illnesses that are occasionally sidelined, mostly due to a lack of understanding.

As a species, we are instinctively fearful of what we do not understand, which is why medical books, self-help guides and novels are so vital in educating society on why mental health should not be disregarded—or feared.

There is the issue of romanticising mental health in literature

However, there is the issue of romanticising mental health in literature, or portraying it inaccurately with supernatural elements. For those who rely on books to acquire understanding, depictions like these can be harmful. Teaching a child that his or her schizophrenia means they can read minds is not protecting them or making them feel better; it is directly placing them in a position of confusion and alienation. If fiction is to thrive as a saviour, its factual basis must be correct. It must be able to convey the facts that medical books are based on.

The answer to our question of whether fiction or medical books are better will never be finite. It is too subjective to have a whole, definite answer. Fiction could be better for one aspect, and medical books could be better for the other.

So we will let you decide which you prefer.


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