In the last ten years, the narrative surrounding mental health has definitely shifted, being destigmatized through intelligent discourse and education. Destigmatization is important for two groups: people with mental illness, and people without. So in a word, it’s important for everyone.
People who don’t have mental illness need to see mental illness portrayed how it really is, not the over-blown tropes so often portrayed in literature and especially on screen. Those of us with mental illness need to see that we’re not alone. Seeing characters battling their own shadows and seeing their indomitable strength helps to remind us of our own.
The new diversity in literature
Mental illness representation matters.
In recent years, the mental health community seen a wonderful increase in diverse characters that live in the pages of our favorite books, dance across our ever-present screens, or sing their way into our hearts.
One type of diversity even more recently seen is the inclusion of main characters with mental illness. Once thought of as flawed, unreliable narrators and sometimes relegated to side characters, protagonists who have suffered through trauma or mental illness are now showing their muscles as major main character contenders in speculative fiction.
Reading about experiences that reflect can at times be triggering, yes—but through the pain of possibly reliving experiences or past feelings is cathartic—and catharsis aids in healing.
For part four of my women’s literature series for Women’s History Month, I thought I’d take a look specifically at sci-fi and fantasy books that sensitively portray mental illness through the eyes of female protagonists.
Many modern authors in sci-fi and fantasy are now creating strong, gritty heroines who battle their own demons with one hand and save the world (or at least their small part of it) with the other. It just goes to show us as readers that we do the same thing every day, just maybe in a smaller context. So maybe we’re not battling with crippling depression while trying to solve our sister’s murder or save a planet from utter destruction, but we have our own battles all the same. Sometimes the battle is just getting out of bed to take a shower.
The following is a collection of five speculative fiction novels that take a look at mental illness through a feminine lens.
After Hugo Award-winning author Emma Newman was diagnosed with anxiety disorder over twenty years ago, she realized her beloved genre of science fiction didn’t have enough stories that dealt with mental illness.
So she set out to write her own.
Planetfall, the first book in the series of the same name, was Newman’s own way of dealing with her own mental illness, by creating a main character who suffers from severe mental illness set in the landscape of a faraway colony.
Newman’s protagonist, 3D printer engineer Renata, sets her mental illness front and center, as she tries to uncover the roots of her anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ren’s character also details how her mental illness impacts her community on the colony —and how life on the colony is impacting her illness.
Newman’s character of Ren is a reflection of how high-functioning most of us with mental illness are. We have careers, contribute to society, go about our daily grind while fighting exhausting, never-ending battles inside our own minds.
Called an “exceptionally engaging” novel by The Washington Post, Planetfall is definitely not one to miss.
Veteran author Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway has rightfully earned a coveted spot on the shelves along with speculative legends C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll, and for good reason. In 2017, McGuire’s achingly beautiful novel entranced both readers and critics alike, winning a plethora of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Alex, and World Fantasy Award.
The first book in the Wayward Children series, Every Heart a Doorway takes the classic tale of children disappearing through magical portals and reverses it. What happens when the children return to the mundane world?
The story follows young Eleanor West, a girl who has returned from one such mystical world back to the real world—only to be left feeling that the “real world” is no longer real, or all that welcoming since no one on Earth believes in alternate realities. Dealing with the depression of her return, and her attempt to reassimilate, she opens a home for other children like her in an attempt to help them (and herself) cope. Mostly girls, the wayward children who seek solace in Eleanor’s home are experiencing anxiety and depression after returning home.
This gem of a gothic charmer compassionately weaves a tale of mental illness, grief, and the struggle to fit in for girls who feel they have no place in the world. It also highlights the importance of a support system and healthy coping mechanisms for those struggling with mental illness, especially children, who may find it easier to voice their feelings around those who have the same struggles.
Although I have included this novel in a previous roundup, I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t add it to this one as well. Considered by many readers to completely redefine urban fantasy, Mishell Baker’s gritty, searing Borderline combines witches, fairies, and werewolves with the shockingly realistic struggle of a young woman struggling with borderline personality disorder.
Borderline’s MC Millie is a double amputee after surviving a failed suicide attempt. While dealing with her physical healing, she is also dealing with her new diagnosis of BPD, which puts her mental illness at the forefront of the narrative. Millie’s mental illness actually makes her a perfect candidate to begin working with a secret government agency to police the worlds between the humans and the fey. giving readers a strong, believable heroine to root for, especially readers who may struggle with the same illness.
Although Opium and Absinthe takes place over 100 years ago, it reflects modern issues with eerie clarity.
Author and practicing physician Lydia Kang tackles the themes of addiction, depression, trauma, and PTSD in her carefully crafted historical fiction jewel that is Opium and Absinthe.
Main character Tillie Pembroke has suffered the tragic loss of her dear sister—found murdered with two suspicious puncture wounds in her neck that uncannily resemble vampire fangs. Living in New York in 1899, residents are deep in the throes of the Bram Stoker Dracula obsession that dominated popular culture at the time. An avid researcher and reader, Tillie instantly suspects supernatural forces at work and becomes addicted to finding her sister’s killer.
But finding justice for her sister isn’t her only addiction. Due to a physical injury just before her sister’s murder, she begins taking laudanum for her pain. But during the trauma after her sister’s death, she begins using the laudanum to dispel the gargantuan waves of grief and crippling depression that consume her. Before long, she is medicating multiple times daily, struggling with the need for the laudanum while also knowing how bad it is for her.
Kang wrote the book as a response to America’s opioid crisis but chose to place her heroine’s modern struggles against the backdrop of an opulent, Rockefeller-era New York. But the issues are the same—how easily one can become addicted through doctor-prescribed medications, the enablers that keep them addicted and supplied with drugs, and the strength that comes from recognizing addiction and taking steps to overcome it.
Kang’s Tillie proves that not all “unreliable” narrators are really all that unreliable.
Singaporean author Neon Yang has blazed trails in the sci-fi and fantasy community at large with their gripping speculative fiction and “silkpunk” novellas that touch on today’s most on our minds and in our hearts.
The Red Threads of Fortune is technically book two of the Tensorate series but can be read as a standalone.
Yang’s protagonist Moykoya is reeling from the tragic death of her beloved daughter. Traumatized and suicidal, she keeps herself isolated, hunting creatures of the sky called naga, having lost interest in her duty as a prophet. To protect her world from the most dangerous of naga, Moykoya must finally face her grief and come to terms with her past in order to reconnect with her talent as a prophet who can change the future.
The novel realistically and compassionately looks at how grief, trauma, loss, and depression can completely change a person’s belief in their abilities, while also focusing on the supportive relationships that help us recover from such losses.
Reading books that center around characters with mental illness can help us relate to the world and everyone in it with more compassion and understanding.
Literature transports us beneath the surface, to reveal new landscapes for us to explore and question not only the words but the silences in between.