In Freudian Script, we love to hear how authors tackle the accurate and sensitive portrayal of mental health problems in fiction. Sara Barnard, author of Young Adult novel Beautiful Broken Things, tells us her tale.
What led you to explore issues of mental health in Beautiful Broken Things?
I was interested in the aftermath of trauma and violence, and how these experiences can affect young people as they grow and develop. In a lot of cases, unfortunately, people recovering from past pain go on to struggle with their mental health. It struck me that we don’t see much of this in YA fiction – stories tend to focus on the traumatic event itself and not what comes next – and I wanted to change that in a very small way with the book I wrote.
I was also aware of how mental health is so often used as The Big Issue in YA, as if it is the defining feature of a character. So I wanted to also feature a character who had mental health issues that were incidental to the actual plot, to show that living with a condition like bipolar disorder – as Caddy’s older sister does – can be part of everyday life instead of a big drama.
There’s a lot of stigma around mental health. What do you think are the best ways to combat it?
I think fiction can be really important in this area – in books and on TV, we should be seeing truthful and authentic portrayals of a range of mental health issues. For many people, this will be the first (and sometimes only) time they are exposed to a particular mental health condition, so it’s important that it’s not one-dimensional or stereotypical. It also shouldn’t be used as a transparent plot device – this is one of my biggest bugbears with mental health in TV and books.
As a writer, would you recommend any particular films/TV shows/novels that do a good job of portraying mental health that other writers could use as inspiration?
Holly Bourne’s novel Am I Normal Yet? contains an amazing portrayal of a teenager struggling with OCD. She’s in recovery but is fearful of relapsing – this is also something we don’t see enough of in books or on TV.
What would you like to see more of in terms of young adult characters?
It would be great to see a little more of characters living with conditions rather than a story being based entirely around them “discovering” they have a condition, if that makes sense. Mental health – and physical health – is about so much more than the initial diagnosis, and it would be nice to see a bit more of that reflected in fiction. Though I think we are getting better.
What one piece of advice would you give a person struggling with their mental health?
Talk to someone. That doesn’t have to mean in person, or even someone you know personally – those of us who struggle with mental health are very lucky in one important way, which is that we’re living in the age of the internet. Taking that first step of finding help can be as simple as opening a webpage.
And what advice would you give to writers looking to portray that struggle accurately and sensitively?
Ask! Again, the internet exists, so there’s a whole world of information available on so many aspects of mental health. Research is so important, but I also think that should be done with the character in mind, rather than as something separate from them. So rather than “How does bipolar disorder affect teenagers”, for example, it would be “How does bipolar disorder affect MY character, with this life and this family, with these character traits?” etc. Just like people in real life, a character doesn’t begin and end with their mental health. If you are true to the character and their struggle, it will follow naturally that the portrayal will be accurate and sensitive.
But having said that, I’d recommend finding a beta reader you trust to check your novel specifically to give you feedback on the mental health aspect.
Sara lives in Brighton and does all her best writing on trains. She loves books, book people and book things. She has been writing ever since she was too small to reach the “on” switch on the family Amstrad computer. She gets her love of words from her dad, who made sure she always had books to read and introduced her to the wonders of secondhand book shops at a young age.
Sara is inspired by what-ifs and people. She thinks sad books are good for the soul and happy books lift the heart. She hopes to write lots of books that do both. Beautiful Broken Things is her first book and a dream come true.