Science fiction addresses almost every conceivable topic covering the human condition, from the obvious such as what it means to be human or are we as a species on a path to destruction via war or environmental impact, to evolution, consciousness, sexuality, religion, memory and almost everything else you can think of. Fantasy and horror are perhaps less concerned with deeper themes but of course, many works address ideas such as industrialisation, what is good or evil, racism and more. But they rarely cover, explicitly at least, mental health.
Of course, mental health is as difficult to define as genre fiction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the bible of such things, was first published in 1952 and unbelievably, included homosexuality. It was 130 pages long and had 106 mental disorders. The latest edition, from 2013, has 947 pages of definitions and descriptions. If you consider the many types of disorder (Neurodevelopmental, psychotic disorders, Bipolar conditions, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, eating disorders, gender dysphoria, sleep disorders and all the rest) I’d expect to be able to name dozens of genre books I’ve read that addresses these issues.
I started thinking about this subject after I read Borderline (2016) by Mishell Baker. It features a character called Millie who is suffering from borderline personality disorder after a failed suicide attempt. She is also now physically disabled. She exhibits unstable relationships with other people, unstable sense of self, and unstable emotions. Millie is headhunted from her treatment centre into the Arcadia Project. This covert organisation, being urban fantasy, is a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with what are generally known as fey. This is a typical innocent gets inducted into the so-called real world that contains magic (see the likes of Harry Potter, Rivers of London and The Magicians). It’s fairly enjoyable if unremarkable narratively, as Baker populates her novel with various mental disorders – it seems that those with these disorders are the best people to deal with magic. Baker doesn’t hold back on the effects and troubles of Millie’s disorder, which is what I think makes this novel stand out. The characterisation is enhanced because of the characters’ disorders.
Off the top of my head I wrote down (typed) all the fiction I’d read where mental health issues seemed to be explicit. I came up with Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, Breakfast of Champions, The Stars My Destination, A Scanner Darkly, and Oryx and Crake.
These novels feature:
- an eccentric and grief-stricken scientist, and ‘creature’ suffering from isolation and trauma;
- good and evil personalities;
- narcissistic hedonism;
- dissociative identity disorder;
- deranged and delusional;
- revenge fixation and stress-related disorder;
- multiple identity and addiction;
- unhealthy obsessions, and mad scientist.
I guess mad scientist is the most common concept in genre fiction, but I’m not sure that it is tackled seriously in most examples, but rather they are used as a cypher to create any given novel’s narrative MacGuffin (such as HG Wells’ Doctor Moreau).
What else is out there? What am I missing? And should genre fiction be embracing the issues of mental health. After all, in 2015, according to ICM Research, 30% of adults in the UK (over 18s) said that they have or previously had a mental health condition. [i]
I’m wondering about the mental health of ex-military personnel. How about the aging population? Gender identity issues in children. Self-harm? I’ve a personal interest in insomnia. I’d love some recommendations on topics of interest.
[i] Leading common mental health issues experienced over the past year in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2015. Statista. Accessed 13 September, 2017. Available from https://www.statista.com/statistics/505466/leading-mental-health-illnesses-united-kingdom-uk/.