The Best Literature to Explore Mental Illness

Mental illness has affected almost everyone at some point in their lives. It could be due to stress faced in schools or at work, anxiety for the future, or just feeling overwhelmed by all the negative things happening in the world.

With the coronavirus pandemic having both a physical and psychological impact, there have been an increasing number of cases of mental illness.

And even though the situation was not ideal, we can take solace in knowing that the awareness and discussion surrounding mental illness has grown.

Last year, local non-profits organised mindfulness training for over 23,000 people. Three times more people took part in these trainings than in previous years. There was an increase in the number of people who could access help when they needed it. For example, the SOS helplines received twice as many calls compared to the previous year.

These are all good things, but there’s still a stigma attached to seeking mental healthcare.

Most youths who seek professional assistance for mental illness keep their troubles secret from their family members.

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Mental illness has often been portrayed in various ways in literature. Some portrayals are harsh and negative, some authentic and compassionate, but all show how ignorant and callous people can be towards mentally ill individuals.

An example of this is Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), which shows us a first-person account of a woman experiencing postpartum depression.

Throughout the story, the woman’ s mental health deteriorates, but all of her symptoms are trivialized by the doctors and nurses around her, even though they know full well that something is wrong.

John says that he has prescribed the rest cure for the protagonist, which means that he has told her not to worry about her mental health at all.

He then compares the protagonist’s mental state to an ordinary disease that one might experience, saying that it is something that she can simply get rid of by taking some time off from her daily activities.

As time went by, the characters in Sylvia plath’s “The bell jar” would echo this false simplification of mental illness, such as through Mrs Greenwood, Esther Greenwood’s mother.

After having experienced a painful, botched treatment session, Esther tells her mom that she wants to quit seeing her first doctor, Dr. Gordon. To this, her mom replies, “I just know that you’re gonna get better.”

Like John in The Yellow Room, Esther’s mom trivializes Esther’s condition and appears to blame Esther for it, implying that it was a deliberate decision on her part to go through with such an ordeal.

Unfortunately, this is a common misunderstanding that has existed for years. Those who lack sufficient understanding on the subject may not realize that mental health issues are just as real as physical illnesses.

For example, someone who has a common cough might look cheerful when they’re not actually feeling well inside. However, someone who suffers from depression may appear happy on the surface even though they feel sad deep down.

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Often times, fictional depictions of mental illness portray inhumane treatments, such as how shock therapies were often utilized as a “blank slate” approach to treat an array of mental disorders. These indiscriminate uses of extreme measures reflects our society’s lack empathy towards individuals who suffer from mental illness in real world. A lack of awareness often leads to people being shamed, ridiculed, or even shunned by others.

Shock therapy is used in psychiatric hospitals even though it has been proven ineffective for most people. People who receive shock treatment are often forced into compliance through threats and intimidation. They’re not treated with dignity or compassion.

Of course, this might not always be true for every institution, but the idea that people who struggle with their minds are somehow ‘abnormal’ and need to be fixed by professionals is an outdated one. It’s important to remember that these people have the same rights as everyone else, and they shouldn’t be treated differently just because they’re suffering from some kind of mental illness.

Mental illness has been described by some people as a “creature”; for example, English writer Samuel Johnson and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill compared their depression to a black hound. In Oscar Wilde‘s play The Picture of Dorian Grey, mental illness is depicted in the shape of an incredibly ugly portrait.

It revolves around the titular protagonist Dorian Grey who slowly descends into the depths of his own mental illness.

As Dorian Gray continues to age, he becomes increasingly ugly and evil. His portrait gradually changes from an innocent young man into a grotesque monster.

More realistically, The Bell Jar portrays Buddy Willard, Esther’s college beau, indirectly showing his disgust for her after finding out about her mental illness. He then tells her, “I wonder who you’ll end up marrying now, Esther,” insinuating that she is no longer desirable due to her mental health history.

Unfortunately, people tend to think that mental illness makes someone undesirable.

There is still a long way to go before we can completely eradicate mental illness. However, we hope that one day, we‘ll all learn to be more open-minded and less judgmental towards each other.

Titles mentioned:

the best literature to explore mental illness

(from left to right)

The Yellow Wallpaper — Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey

The Picture of Dorian Gray — Oscar Wilde

Natural Appraise on Mental Illness