Writing Mental Illness

I often hear about writers struggling to write characters with mental illness, because they want to accurately portray mental illness without it being offensive. I believe that there should be more mental illness in literature and the arts because it helps to raise awareness. So, I have put together the following list as a beginner’s guide to writing characters with mental illness.

Do Your Research

Give Your Character a Life Outside of Mental Illness

Make sure your character isn’t there simply as the token mentally ill person. Even if your book focuses on mental illness, your characters need a life. They need friends and family. They need hobbies and activities to do. The goal is always to make our characters authentic. Making a character one-dimensional where the only thing they add to the story is being someone with mental illness is a dangerous practice.

Use It As a Source of Pride

While having a mental illness may not necessarily be something somebody is proud of, overcoming that mental illness to become successful is something to be proud of. In (Not) Alone, there was a major theme of pride throughout the book. Every time Henry overcame his latest struggle with mental illness, you could feel and see his sense of pride and self-confidence increased every chapter.

Show, Don’t Tell

As writers, we hear this every time we send a manuscript to our editor. No matter how many times we hear it, we inevitably have places in our writing where someone can say “I wish they would have shown that instead of telling it.” The same is true for mental illness. Don’t tell the reader someone has anxiety, show them. Allow the reader to experience the fine details of the story through the character’s actions, details that rely on the reader’s senses, intentionally using words, or the expression of characters’ emotions. Some examples:

  • Instead of “I was starting to have an anxiety attack,” use something like “The closer I got, the more my heart beat against my chest. It felt like I was having a heart attack. The anxiety flooded my mind again, making me question everything.
  • Instead of “He was having an anxiety attack,” use something like “He felt like his breath was escaping him and every time he tried to catch it, more got away from him. Henry couldn’t talk anymore. He was afraid that his next breath would be his last. He just focused on moving his legs. The ground felt like it was slowly giving way beneath him. His chest was slowly tightening its grip, causing an unbearable pain. His stomach was in a thousand knots as he struggled to breathe.
  • Instead of “He was experiencing bipolar rage,” use something like “He couldn’t make out the sound of his engine roaring through the sound of his heart pounding within his chest. All he knew was that he wanted to get away from his current surroundings. He wanted the Earth to stop spinning. He slammed his car into reverse as he backed out of his grandparent’s driveway.

Hire a Sensitivity Reader

I got lucky with my latest book and my editor also served as a sensitivity reader. You can find tons of resources for quality sensitivity readers online, or reach out to your fellow writers or social media followers to get recommendations. Sensitivity readers give you a better understanding of how readers will react to your writing. It gives you the opportunity to fix the mistakes that may not be quite correct or maybe unintentionally offensive before it goes out to the masses.


Published by Tyler Wittkofsky

Tyler Wittkofsky is a multi-genre author, blogger, award-winning marketing and communications professional, and fierce mental health advocate from the southern coast of North Carolina. Tyler has been writing short stories for as long as he can remember. Growing up the grandson of an English teacher, Tyler had a constant fuel to his creative fire in his grandmother. He started writing poetry in 2012 to cope with his mental health struggles with anxiety, bipolar, and depression. Using poetry as an escape, he developed a unique style of poetry that has left readers saying, “Tyler’s voice is compassionate, even while suffering, and I felt the despair and loneliness seeping out through his words.” His first poetry collection, composed of poems written from 2012 to 2016, was published in March 2020. He began his first novel in 2019. The novel, (Not) Alone, was a story based on true events surrounding the struggles of living with mental illness. Described by readers as “An Intimate Closure with Mental Illness,” this began Tyler’s revitalized passion for mental health. He decided that his writing would have a focus on mental health. His next novel, The Seeds of Love: Sunflower Kisses Book One, was his debut romance novel and debut series. Described as “a great job of relaying the realistic emotions of young love and emotional drama that is particularly difficult for young adults…”, his debut romance novel was met with much success. In 2021, Tyler began writing short stories. He was accepted into several anthologies in mid-2021, expected for publication in early 2022. He also writes supernatural horror and historical fantasy for the online magazines In the Pantheon and In the Crescent. He has work published through Five Minute Affairs as well. He built his website www.TeaButWithCoffee.com in 2021. On this site, he started his blogging journey. He began writing book reviews, interviewing indie authors, and writing on mental health. This passion sparked a new desire to connect with more people. Tyler is currently in the beginning stages of two podcasts that he hopes to be live by the end of 2021. Tyler currently lives in Leland, North Carolina with his wife, Grace, and dogs, Dutch and Belle. You can find him and his works here: https://linktr.ee/wittkofsky

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: