Tamsin Winter: How fiction can tackle stigma for young readers
Digital team's blog
Tamsin Winter is a school teacher and author. Her debut novel, Being Miss Nobody explores how a mental health issue can be an enormous barrier to making friends, asking for help, and showing people who you really are – combined with the pressures of growing-up online and the double-edged power of social media. Here she talks about how fiction can tackle the stigma of mental illness for young readers.
I grew up in the 1980s, when mental health as a concept barely existed. In much of the fictional world, people with mental illness were as frightening as ghosts. They lived straight-jacketed in padded cells, alone on hills, hidden away in attics, demoniac, bitter or violent, usually meeting some terrible fate before The End. They were unsettling caricatures, designed to evoke fear rather than empathy. I suppose that’s how I imagined mental illness in the real world too.
It wasn’t until I studied the poetry of Sylvia Plath during my A levels, and read her novel The Bell Jar, that I came across literature that spoke to me of real mental illness. Feelings of disconnectedness, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, intense fear, depression. These weren’t ramblings of a mad woman, but the celebrated words of an intelligent, lucid woman who suffered from a frightening illness.
But still, the turmoil of Plath’s invisible illness was never really spoken about during classroom discussions. No one talked to us about symptoms or getting help. It was an illness that started and ended in the pages of a book. There wasn’t so much as a ‘By the way, kids, if you ever find yourself feeling like this, here’s the number to call’. But then, it was the 1990s. Maybe there wasn’t a number to call.
It’s unsurprising to me that still, all these years later, so many people keep silent about mental illness, and that so many conditions are greatly misunderstood. We somehow created a world where mental illness was met with brutality, imprisonment and shame. It takes a long time to walk out of the shadow of that stigma. But now, thankfully, I think we’re starting to get there. And that’s where I see the fictional world heading too.
There are so many wonderful books for young people now that tackle themes of mental health. And I cannot express how important I believe it is for children to read them. It’s one of the reasons I wrote Being Miss Nobody. The main character, Rosalind, is an eleven-year-old with selective mutism, a severe anxiety disorder which is still very much misunderstood. At school she’s seen as the weird girl who doesn’t speak, but I hope young readers will see how awesome she is.
Because the thing is, children care about characters. Children believe in characters. And those feelings stay with them as they grow up. So if authors can create lovable characters, who just happen to have something extra going on in their brains, maybe children will learn that mental illness is not something to be feared, that it doesn’t make you a monster, but is something that can affect any of us, and requires understanding and kindness.
Along with the brave adventurers fighting dastardly villains, I believe children should read about characters like Rosalind, who are battling a different kind of demon. Not exaggerated caricatures locked in attics, but rooted in reality, and telling their own stories. This way we can encourage young people to discuss mental illness, to ask questions, empathise, understand, to tell them that if this ever happens to you, it’s okay to speak up. And, most importantly, we need to make sure we’re there to listen.
So, yes, maybe my Dorothy wouldn’t have stepped on to that yellow brick road without a panic attack (seriously - the girl just survived a tornado), and maybe my Harry Potter would have had mania as well as magic, and maybe if I’d written about the Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly, she would have had someone in her life to at least stage an intervention.
Because people with mental health conditions have to be the heroes of our own lives. We deserve to be the heroes in books too.
You can follow Tamsin on Twitter and Facebook. Or visit her website at www.tamsinwinter.com