Mental Illness in Fiction

I’m not a big fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which basically says:  You have to have food, water, shelter, the things you need to survive, before you can move on to your need of security.  You have to feel secure and safe before you can form strong social bonds.  You need strong social bonds to develop your sense of self.  Only when you have all that you can experience self-actualization, which is supposedly where things like art and philosophy hang out.

Yeah, right.

I’m not saying the basic layout of priorities isn’t right, but the idea that a person is somehow less of a person just because their need fulfillment isn’t where it should be, that they can’t think about the nature of the universe and create beautiful things, doesn’t sit well with me.

I have depression and anxiety.  That makes it hard for me to develop social relationships, and sometimes I don’t even feel safe in my own mind.  But does that mean I can’t value music or find something meaningful in a work of art?  Does it mean I can’t look at the stars and wonder about how something so wonderful could come to be?  Of course not.

And I think that’s something storytellers need to understand before they try to create characters with mental illnesses or other issues.

I’m going to use a character with struggles similar to my own, since that’s what I’m most familiar with, as an example:  Kaladin in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive.

Kaladin has been many things–a surgeon’s apprentice, a brother, a soldier, a bodyguard, a rebellious slave.  He has a natural gift for both combat and healing, which don’t always go hand in hand, but he makes them work.  The men under his command call him Stormblessed.  He’s a Surgebinder, bonded to the spren Syl, which gives him amazing powers that he uses to brilliant effect.  He tries to decide whether it’s possible to protect by destroying, and whether he believes in the religion he was raised in.

He is really, really cool.


But he feels sort of desolate when the rainy season comes.  But he can’t trust his new commanding officer after being betrayed so many times in his past.  But he feels personally responsible for anything even remotely bad that happens to the people he cares about.  But sometimes his mind is such a dark place it’s impossible for him to make decisions.  But Syl has to lecture him about doing the normal human things like smiling and going out with friends.  But even when things are going well he can’t help expecting a disaster tomorrow.  But when things were awful he stood on the edge of a cliff and thought about jumping.

He’s a lot like me.

Reading about Kaladin helped me better understand my own disorder.  He helped me recognize that my value isn’t contingent on my mental health–because Kaladin isn’t healthy.  He’s crossed some barriers, but he still has a long way to go for the rest of the series.  He’s wonderful, and so am I.  He showed me that it’s possible to have depression and still do amazing things, even if you mess up a lot.

Kaladin tries to figure out how the universe works the same as anyone else.  His personhood isn’t lessened because of his illness.

Neither is anyone else’s.


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