Beyond the DSM-V: Representing Mental Illness in Fanfiction

Fanfiction often presents an "idealized" take on mental illness. | ©dodoardo | ©dodoardo

I read a lot of superhero fanfic, and therefore I read a lot of fic featuring depictions of PTSD and depression. In a Marvel blockbuster, the focus is usually on plot before people. Because of an ensemble cast, there is only enough time to hint at the psychological complexities of an individual character. So we see Tony Stark have a few panic attacks and be really flippant about it. In a scene cut from the first Avengers, we see Steve Rogers engaging in mundane tasks (riding the subway, sitting at a café) while looking immensely lost in his new environment.

The trauma is shown (the battles, the deaths of friends), but the aftermath of that trauma is abridged, truncated, cut from the final picture, or sometimes not shown at all. These absences create a space into which the fanfic writer can insert their own speculation and interpretation. Good fanfic fleshes out canon and adds depth to our understanding of characters.

But why are fic writers particularly drawn to issues of trauma and mental illness? What does mental illness look like in fanfic compared to mainstream fiction? What should it look like?

Fanfiction often presents an “idealized” take on mental illness. I use “idealized” in quotations because fanfiction can be very realistic about mental illness. For example, a perfect romantic relationship isn’t going to suddenly cure you of depression, which is a common and erroneous fantasy. The ideal is not a cure but an internal and external acceptance of the illness; in these fics, characters lead fulfilling lives with their mental illnesses.

Sometimes I worry that mental illness is a cheap way for fic writers to “woobify” characters, but I know in a lot of instances mental illness plays a role in fanfic because it’s something with which the writer and readers can identify. Transformative fic is frequently written by those on the margins: queer-identified people, ethnic and religious minorities, people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities. These fic writers take it upon themselves to represent the characters and situations that mainstream media often fails to represent.

An insider perspective gives these narratives a certain complexity that may be lacking in materials written by healthy individuals. Too often, the mentally ill are treated as vessels for villainy; it’s been a mainstay in the horror genre for years, and it still is if the recent video game Until Dawn is anything to go by. (I was unsurprised to see fic writers scrabbling to more compassionately represent Josh Washington, a character in the game who suffers from mental health problems).

Much better but still dissatisfying are the depictions of mental illness that feel like someone copy-pasted a DSM-V definition onto a human being. Well-written mentally ill characters are more than their diagnoses. Romantic love doesn’t fix depression, but depression doesn’t negate one’s ability to have fulfilling relationships.

Yet mental illness poses challenges to interpersonal relationships, challenges that can be intensified by a lack of understanding on the part of the mentally healthy. When you look for resources on depression, the question “what do I do if I have depression?” is invariably accompanied by “what do I do if a loved one has depression?”

I recently listened to a radio segment on fictional representations of mental illness. The segment featured two fiction writers and a psychiatrist. One writer drew on her experience growing up with a mother who suffered from depression; the other writer drew on her own struggles with mental illness. Unsurprisingly, I found myself more interested in what the second writer, S. A. Jones, was saying. She explicitly expressed dislike for the idea that romantic love could cure mental illness, and she dismantled the notion that medication is somehow an easy or lazy fix for mental health problems.

I haven’t read either of the books discussed in the segment, so it’s possible that the other writer’s work accurately and compassionately represents mental illness—but it’s only Jones’ book that I put on my to-read list. It’s not really satisfying to read about the ways in which mentally ill individuals are burdens on their friends and family, which is what the outsider perspective often amounts to.

My point is not that mentally healthy individuals should never write about mentally ill characters; it’s just that they have to be conscientious and accept that there are limits to their understanding. If you’re mentally healthy, or even if you have a mental illness but one very different from the illness you’re writing about, reading the DSM-V will only get you so far. You should read personal accounts, read fiction that is written by people with that illness.

The popular conception of depression is that it’s all about sadness, low self-esteem, and suicide attempts; however, as a sufferer of chronic depression, I know that it can also manifest as soul-crushing exhaustion, irritability, lack of motivation—less dramatic but often no less debilitating symptoms. There is no mental illness that is one-size-fits-all.

Diagnostically speaking, both Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers could suffer from PTSD and depression, but they are different people who experienced different traumas. Maybe Steve is mostly restless, morose, and barely sleeps. Maybe Bucky has dissociative episodes and sleeps a lot—but only during the day, when someone else is in the room, because he doesn’t like waking up alone in the dark after a nightmare.

I’m a proponent of exploring mental illness in fanfic, especially when the canon material contains traumatic events that most individuals, no matter how super, would probably need some therapy to deal with. But there is a danger of misrepresenting mental illness or focusing so heavily on a character’s mental illness that they become nothing but a two-dimensional victim of their own malfunctioning brain (characterizations of Bucky Barnes post Winter Soldier sometimes fall into this trap).

A balance needs to be struck. The best representations of mental illness, I find, are the ones where the challenges posed by mental illness are integrated into a broader story. I want to read about my favorite characters working on overcoming their traumas but also doing their superhero things—riding the subway, hanging out at coffee shops, and eventually falling in love—because, hey, that’s what we’re here for, right? Sure, it’s self-indulgent, but when you live on the margins, it’s nice to read about someone else on the margins leading a fulfilling life despite their difficulties.

About Rowan Morris (2 Articles)
Rowan Morris is an Ontario-based freelancer. When he is not thinking about how dreamy Steve Rogers is, Morris enjoys writing strange fiction, creating cocktails, and collecting Catholic paraphernalia. You can find him in your back garden petting your plants.

4 Comments on Beyond the DSM-V: Representing Mental Illness in Fanfiction

  1. Thank you for this article! I was wondering (before writing my fanfic) that if I was romanticizing it! Gladly I wasn’t! I am pretty interested in Mental Health and Psychology! (I am planning to work as a Physocolgist!) Before making any work I always make sure to search for some information! Today I did a brainstorm of all the problems I am willing to put in the characters and I was searching for one that was tied with Abandonment Issues, which it remained mysterious for me! Until I started searching for some disorders and I went to search that too! Turns out the character suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder but in their adult life which sadly people don’t have knowledge of this disorder and believe when they get to grow as adults and live their lives normally but it’s not like that and they are different types, most of them have difficulties in trusting people some trust strangers more than their family (because it was thanks to abandonment when they were at their first three years of their life or they were rejected many times!) Some don’t trust strangers at all and trust deeply in their family. Some have their lives ruined and some try to deal with it but their life is okay! Some may have relationship problems to one point they can’t have any people as their partner, some manage to have one and sometimes they rely on that person to try to fight with it. The treatment is between talk and other stuff with Professionals, family (even a partner) but there’s never a cure for mental illnesses. That ticks me off when I see that on fanfiction. So unrealistic. Before making any research I NEVER AND NEVER PLANNED of ”curing” their mental illnesses. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. Yes, they can fix their lives and live normally but that is always going to stay there. Maybe I knew this because I have one of my siblings with Autism. (I have made some research and it’s way similar what I had in mind! and there’s plenty of stuff to tell but I’ll never end!
    ALSO, DO NOT SEARCH ONLY ON WIKIPEDIA. IT’S PRETTY UNTRUSTFUL, RELY ON ARTICLES WRITTEN BY PEOPLE WHO SUFFER THESE MENTAL ILLNESSES OR MEDICAL WEBPAGES, BECAUSE WIKIPEDIA DOESN’T ALWAYS GIVE YOU ALL THE INFORMATION. I really got to understand better the whole R.A.D thing thanks to an article written by a person who suffers it. (So I recommend auto-biographies or description of one the patients from those mental illnesses.)

  2. Thank you for this, as someone who deals with mental illness personally and in my professional life I often find fandom depictions problematic at best; romanticizing, idealizing, and more often than not coming off as entirely misinformed and reaching for a way to include some horrible h/c trope or another. I’ve gotten to the point where I refuse to read anything anymore that tries to dive in to PTSD, depression, autism, any number of diagnoses in the assumption I’ll end up backing out of the fic and blacklisting an otherwise good writer.

  3. Fanfic writer // January 3, 2016 at 8:56 am // Reply

    What “should” it look like? Anything its authors want it to.

    Regardless of how some in fandom want to glorify it as “transformative,” at the end of the day fanfic is not a documentary, just a hobby, its authors writing it for fun. Absent some boundaries of basic decency such as not representing the mentally ill as ravening monsters, we have absolutely no obligation whatsoever to make it conform to your or anyone else’s take on mental illness.

    BTW, I have depression and anxiety. Not that it’s any of your business, because “oppression cred” shouldn’t get to dictate what someone can and cannot write. For that matter, I’m a woman, and I really do not appreciate yet another man attempting to dictate to me what I “should” or “should not” write.

  4. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // December 2, 2015 at 3:35 pm // Reply

    I love this article, and everything you’ve written about how mental illness is depicted in (fan)fiction. I’ve seen many of the shallow tropes you mention, but I’ve also seen mature, complex, and nuanced depictions of it in fanfiction. I’m mentally healthy, but I haven’t wanted to just use mental illness as a device, so I’ve researched some of it for my own writing, particularly looking for first-person accounts. An excellent depiction of it can be found in Hyperbole and a Half’s graphic novel:

    This depiction is particularly compelling because it stands in such stark contrast to Hyperbole and a Half’s earlier hilarious comics. As I read it, I can feel the soul-crushing, irrational, no-amount-of-willpower-will-save-me experience of clinical depression.

    I’ve explored PTSD and depression, and how it might be experienced by a person of deep religious faith, in my epic Downton Abbey novel series, Trust and Providence, where it is combined with a portrayal of paraplegia, infertility, and marriage, all in the context of WWI.

    I’ve also written a post-‘The Winter Soldier’ Steve Rogers / Sharon Carter (a.k.a. “Kate” / “Agent 13”) fic that touches a bit on their post-trauma experiences. It’s less about Steve Rogers working through some textbook PTSD situation, and more of a exploration of how he’s keeping it together despite each successive loss of context that he experiences. The budding romance isn’t his salvation, but the friendship and mutual honesty that is the foundation for the romance are elements that help him in his journey towards acceptance and healthy adaptation. The journey isn’t neatly tied up with a bow by the end of the fic; it’s only just begun. The story is called “Echoes and Questions”.

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