Portrayals of Mental Health In Genre Fiction

Portrayals of people with mental illnesses have come a long way. From variety to accuracy to ending stereotypes.

In the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Alasdair Stuart, Penny Jones, Dr. Glyn Morgan, and Devin Madson, discussed who gets it right… and who gets it wrong.

Why Are There More Portrayals of Mental Illness In Genre Fiction Today?

  1. People are more comfortable discussing it
  2. Nearly everyone will suffer at some point in their lives, even if it’s just temporary stress
  3. People are being rewarded for opening the discussion
  4. The audience is welcoming

What Informed Older Portrayals of Mental Illness?

  1. Mental illness as a reaction to trauma was accepted — it had an external reason.
    • Rod Serling of the original Twilight Zone’s work was often based on his WW2 experience, characters named after friends he’d lost
  2. Murderers and manic pixies were given mental illness as reasons people could do horrific things

Who Got It Wrong?

Some illnesses are hard to make palatable, like schizophrenia. Some are misused or misrepresented like psychopaths. And some, start off strong, but then stumble and disappoint us.

  1. Sheldon from The Big Bang — seems like an autistic stereotype, but the writers claim it’s not, so claim they’re not negatively portraying autism.
  2. Drax from the Guardians of the Galaxy — set him up in the first movie as a great autistic/Aspergers portrayal, but then turned him into mere comic relief.
  3. Fat Thor — Fans debate if he was a punchline or still worthy
  4. ‘Magical lab technician’ – CSI/House/etc – using their illness as a plot device

Who Got It Right?

  1. City in the Middle of the Nights – Charlie Jane Anders – PTSD
  2. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal – Anxiety
  3. City of Lies – Sam Hawke – OCD
  4. Station Blue – (Audio Drama) – Bipolar
  5. The Far Meridian – (Audio Drama)
  6. Bright Sessions – (Audio Drama) – Empathy
  7. Gone – (Audio Drama) – Running low on meds
  8. Sleeping Beauties – Stephen King
  9. Hereditary – Psychosis
  10. American Horror Story
  11. Vast Horizon – PTSD
  12. Brooklyn 99
  13. The Crow Garden
  14. Final Approach
  15. Shutter Island
  16. Planetfall – Emma Neuman
  17. Emma Donahue

What Do People Want To See More Of?

  1. More.
  2. Aspergers
  3. Better portrayals of early treatment — before things hit crisis level
  4. Trauma — is resolved too easily (unless it’s a character quirk)
  5. Relapse NOT seen as a failure, just as a thing that happens and has to be taken care of.
  6. Postpartum depression

Mental Illnesses As A Sign Of Their Time

Some illnesses are triggered by environmental factors. Some are diagnosed based on limited information. The panel discussed how mental illnesses used to be designated and what might the future hold for humanity?

  1. Different diagnoses — we used to think epilepsy was a mental illness. Now we can treat it. As we learn more about the root causes, hopefully, we can help more people live better lives.
  2. Isolation

What about you?

Where do you see genre fiction getting mental illness right? Where do you see them messing up big time?

What do you want to see more of?

And what do you think the future will hold?


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