The Portrayal of Mental Health in Fiction

I am excited to reveal the featured guest image for my new post today, which is a beautiful drawing from British artist Lucy Fray (above). She has provided her take on the theme of mental health in fiction for my site and it’s brilliant. Thank you Lucy, you’re a star.

Until fairly recently, mental health was still a taboo topic of conversation for most. Despite the fact we all struggle with our mental health and wellbeing at some point during our lives, the societal stigma towards mental illness meant the majority suffered in silence and/or alone.

Thankfully, things have started to change (well, certainly here in the UK). Traditional attitudes towards mental health are being challenged and rejected by individuals, employers and politicians. There is still a long way to go, but the progress is promising.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that fiction accurately portraying mental illness with both intelligence and compassion has often struggled to reach a large audience. But here are three novels for you to read that depict mental illness realistically and compassionately. And in doing so, they have helped to break down barriers (so should be applauded).

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

I read this book for the first time this year, following a friend’s recommendation (thanks Selena). Eleanor Oliphant won the Costa First Novel Award in 2017. The novel portrays mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder in a way that is simultaneously heart-breaking and sympathetic, without making the protagonist merely a victim.

It is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, at times frightening and sad, but ultimately uplifting. It is also one of the few books I’ve read with a surprising and satisfying twist. Eleanor and Raymond are loveable characters and they are hard to let go. Read this book.

‘The Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer

The Shock of the Fall is another Costa Book of the Year winner (2013). The author trained as a mental health nurse and became a medical research assistant. This shines through in his description and understanding of the protagonist’s mind.

It is a story about grief and its link to mental illness. I was particularly impressed with the formatting styles used in this novel to portray the mind of the protagonist, Matt (who has schizophrenia). It uses different fonts and formatting, pictures, medical reports and letters to mimic Matt’s internal chaos. This effectively displays the horror of the condition to the reader.

‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ by Ken Kasey

Published in 1962, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a critically acclaimed novel that raised questions about mental health and psychiatric treatment at a time when those processes were being challenged in the USA. I saw the film long before I read the novel, but as always the novel is superior.

The novel is told from the perspective of “Chief” Bromden, a mute half-Native American patient in a psychiatric hospital. The story revolves around Randle McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film). It mixes a unique voice with disturbing drawings and is a horrible reminder of the treatment of the mentally ill less than sixty years ago. A great read.

A brighter future

I hope you find the above books educational and enjoyable (you can find them on Goodreads by clicking the titles above). Protecting our own mental health and wellbeing, and the mental health of our family and friends, is fundamentally important. Mental illness is not to be feared, it is to be understood. This is a topic close to my heart and has inspired much of my work. For a recent piece, see my poem about male suicide: Eighty-Four (which is available for free on my website).

If you’d like to see more of Lucy Fray’s fantastic artwork you can visit her Instagram page: @lucyafray.

And on a final note, here are links to three excellent UK mental health charities that provide support: Young Minds (for children and young people), Mind (for adults), and CALM (focusing on male mental health). Contact them if you need to talk.

Take care.


(Image by Lucy Fray: @lucyafray)