At Freudian Script, we explore the relationship between mental health and fiction. Our guest Ruth F Hunt has written a compelling debut novel in The Single Feather, tackling the topics of disability and mental health without shying away from the realities.
What led you to explore issues of mental health and disability in The Single Feather?
Since becoming disabled at the age of eighteen, and having Bipolar as well, I’ve been very aware of the missing voices in novels, with a real lack of disabled characters in adult fiction, being a particular problem. As well as having worked with adults with complex needs in a social services department, I’ve also worked in mental health, with my last role being a Trustee with a large mental health charity.
So along with this experience in my personal and working life, I was very aware that in the past few years, hate crime towards people with disabilities has risen and cuts to benefits have disproportionately affected those with disabilities making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. I was also aware that mood and disability are linked. The Christopher Reeves Foundation says that 20-30% of those with a spinal cord injury can present with clinical depression as well.
Therefore I was keen to have a disabled protagonist but I also wanted a mental health storyline to be included in the novel. In The Single Feather there are also a number of characters over the age of sixty, another group often missing or misinterpreted in fiction.
Did you draw on personal experience to craft your characters?
I would say that my own experiences helped a lot. I found it fairly easy to tap into my protagonist’s mindset, and understand how a traumatic experience led her to take a path she might’ve avoided otherwise. I could empathise with her decision to hide her background, due to fear of being ostracised. It can be hard “coming out” and telling people you have a mental illness or something happened that was traumatic in your past. One area I’m particularly interested in is how we present different versions and histories to people, according to who they are, or what situation we are in and how a ‘white lie’ could multiply and threaten new and existing relationships.
When I’ve been using my wheelchair, I’ve also had lots of strange reactions, from being patted, to being spoken about in the third person. How people react to disability, both positively and negatively and how social attitudes and stigma towards disability can impact on the individual were areas I covered in the novel, so my experience here helped as well.
There is a lot of stigma around disability and mental health problems. What do you think are the best ways to combat it?
I agree, there is still a lot of stigma, and also currently demonisation of those with mental health problems or disability in certain sections of the media. That’s why it’s crucial for writers to include disabled characters or those with a mental illness and to have empathy for these characters. 1 in 4 of us will experience mental ill health, and physical disability is again very common. The more the public see these characters in film, TV, public life or in novels, the more they will understand. The more we talk about mental health or disability, the more we hopefully are giving strength to someone like “Rachel” who in The Single Feather is embarrassed to talk about her past.
When I was first injured, the consultant said to me: “You’re still Ruth, don’t let anyone treat you differently.” Just that one sentence helped me enormously. We can replicate that in fiction, by using disabled characters or those with a mental health problem, as a matter of course, not something strange or out of the ordinary.
As a writer, would you recommend any particular novels that do a good job of portraying disability and mental health that other writers could use for inspiration?
There are some books I’ve recently found to be excellent in dealing with a mental illness: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is also good to read, and dispels many myths surrounding anxiety and depression. Kay Redfield Jamison has produced many books on the subject of mental health; An Unquiet Mind is very enlightening.
I’m also currently reading A little Life by Hanya Yanagihara which combines both physical disability and mental health issues and there’s also a temptation by certain characters to “reinvent” themselves, just like what happens in The Single Feather.
As I was writing about complex characters and group dynamics, I also found The Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein helpful.
What would you like to see more in terms of characters living with disabilities?
As there is such a lack of disabled characters in adult fiction I would simply like to see more writers whether they are able-bodied or not, write about characters that have a disability. They are rich characters to use, and by writing about them, in an empathetic and positive way, you will be helping someone in the real world who has a disability.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their mental health?
A reviewer said about The Single Feather: “If we truly spend time to get to know each other, we will see that there is more that brings us together than separates us.”
This is the message of the book, so if you are struggling with your mental health, you need to reach out. Your GP will be someone who wants to help, but also try to reach out to your friends and family. The chances are you will find other people who have been in your situation or a situation like it. If you don’t feel you can do that yet, then reach out and talk to the Samaritans (UK phone number: 08457 90 90 90). If you would prefer to communicate by email, you can get in touch with them at: email@example.com
What advice would you give to writers wanting to portray that struggle accurately and sensitively?
For writers wanting to portray someone who is struggling with their mental health, the first step is to have empathy for your characters. Do as much research as you can, and talk if possible to people who have a mental health problem, so you can hear what it’s like first hand. Language and how people are treated in hospital and in the community changes every now and again, so it’s important to keep up to date. Websites such as Mind and Rethink can help with this. Most of all remember 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health problem; it’s a lot more common than many expect.
Ruth lives in Lancashire and has worked in welfare rights and in social services with adults with complex needs. She paints for commissions and has her artwork in galleries and exhibitions. She loves writing and her debut novel The Single Feather, is available in bookshops, on Amazon (ebook and paperback), and direct from Pilrig Press. Currently she’s studying English Literature and Creative Writing with The Open University.
Ruth is also the special guest for April’s #psywrite on Tuesday 21st April at 8pm BST.