mental health tropes and how to avoid them: part 1

We’ve all been there – happily reading a book about mental health, and then BAM! You’re hit with a much-loathed trope. Today I’m going to talk about the most common one that I’ve seen:

  • MC is magically cured via the power of (romantic) love

From my experience, YA is particularly bad with this particular trope. I think it’s because in many people’s eyes YA = romance, or that a YA novel would be incomplete without a romance. This is annoying on many fronts (some of which I’m going to talk about below), and can lead to dangerous assumptions. I for one definitely thought that once I was in a romantic relationship that I would be magically cured – what a shock I had when I realised that this was not the case.

So, my tips to writers who are thinking about writing about the curative powers of love:

  1. How about you just…don’t? Not every story has to have romance! Even diehard romantics like me sometimes get tired with the idea that every novel has to pair characters up by the end. Aromantic people exist too and deserve to have their stories told, in all their multifaceted glory. Publishing houses might not be as keen, but you know what? Fuck ’em.
  2. What about the powers of platonic love? The support and comfort of friends would be an amazing thing to write about! We don’t have enough narratives about the power of friendship, in my opinion, particularly in YA. I know that I’ve been helped SO MUCH by my friends – if someone was to write my story, friendship would play a huge part in my experiences of recovery.
  3. If you’re dead set on a romance, focus on the other things that can help someone with a mental illness. Talk about therapy, and medication, and the support of family – that way, if your MC does recover, it can’t totally be because of the curative powers of romantic love.
  4. Have your MC’s experience of mental health stay the same. Not every story has to be one of recovery! In fact, it is quite refreshing to read books like Under Rose-Tainted Skies where the MC still goes to therapy at the end. This isn’t a depressing ending in the slightest, but rather is realistic!
  5. Show the ways in which romantic relationships can actually be difficult for those with mental health problems. I know I had a huge shock when I realised that my mental health was actually worsening when I entered a romantic relationship, because I had yet another person to be anxious about and obsess over!

Because let’s be real – romantic love is just one small aspect of some people’s lives. There are all sorts of other things that can help with recovery – and to expect one person to magically heal you of your mental health? Is dangerous, and puts way too much pressure on them.

What other mental health tropes should I tackle in this series? Let me know!

14 thoughts on “mental health tropes and how to avoid them: part 1

  1. colorfulbookreviews says:

    You make great points! #4 in particular reminded me that’s why I enjoyed The Memory of Light so much and was one of the most redeeming features about Will Grayson, Will Grayson. In general it seems like far too much fiction focuses on romance – non-romantic stories should really appeal to everyone, because we all have friends and family.

    One aspect of potential romances involving one or more disabled characters is finding a balance between supporting the other person’s good health and allowing them autonomy. It is not up to me to dictate the choices of another adult, but there are also nudges, things a friend or spouse can point out or do that aren’t obvious from the inside and could be very helpful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this idea explored in fiction, so if you know of any examples, I’d love to read them!

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  2. Bookish Rita says:

    I agree with this post completely! Mental illnesses get dismissed so easily by YA novels (and in society too…) so I’m glad that more people share this opinion. I can’t stand it when books play the cards you’ve mentioned. When people say “just be happy” or “don’t be nervous” they make my blood boil.

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  3. Sarah says:

    I think the trope that someone can’t be happy unless they’re “cured” needs to end! I prefer stories where the MC is still tackling their mental illness at the end, but are also in a good space.

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  4. Daja @ThoughtfulBlackGirl says:

    I hate the fact that romance in YA seems to be the “cure” to everything! Like you said, there are ace people and people who just don’t like romance!

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  5. Lydia Tewkesbury says:

    Yes! God the issues I have with how we write/talk about love are ENDLESS. I hate the idea of it as this cure all – it’s certainly not going to make you happy OR have good relationships. It’s so messed up that we’ve built our society on the idea that we need to find another person to complete us. Relationships are great, but they really solve nothing. Like you said, if anything, they just bring up more issues you then have to find a way to deal with.

    Have you read any Alice Oseman? She’s a YA author (she’s 20 or something ridiculous but try not to hold it against her). I’ve read two of her books (Radio Silence and I Was Born For This) and neither feature a major romantic storyline. It’s so refreshing.

    Also, I know it’s always a bit of a risk bringing up John Green, but I loved how he wrote about love and mental health in Turtles All The Way Down. It was like the anti-love is the cure all.

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