A mental health connection: the quickest way to your reader’s heart – Jonathan Friesen

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By Jonathan Friesen

Imagine the following: Your cell phone rings, and it’s someone you love. Maybe a friend. Maybe a spouse or child. You answer with a cheery hello, and your greeting is met with a silence that lasts a little too long. Finally, you hear whispers through tears. “I think I’m losing it.”

The mood of your day shifts, and in an instant you are there, all there for your child, your friend. Whatever you had planned that day becomes secondary. Someone you love is in emotional pain, mental anguish, and your heart widens to let the hurting one in.

Many of you have received that phone call, or one very much like it. Actually, that’s not true. You probably all have. Only the call was not on your cell; it came through the pages of a book. A character you adore crumbled emotionally — anxiety or depression rendered them helpless — and your heart hurt and little else mattered.

Perhaps we ache for characters because we are moved by their humanity. Maybe we soften because the hurt hits so close to home. The sheer frequency of mental illnesses (according to the National Alliance of Mental Health, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in any given year) almost assures we are connected to one who suffers. Characters moved by similar frailties remind us we are not as strong as we think we are.

For a writer, this means that the shortest distance to your reader’s heart may well lie along a painful, internal path, the path of mental illness. My first book, Jerk, California, followed Sam and his inherited Tourette syndrome. My most recent, Unfolding, thrusts readers into Jonah’s struggle with epilepsy. Between those two books, mental illnesses have graced four of six of my other novels. It’s a path I wish more writers would walk.

But not without a little discomfort.

Giving a character a mental health struggle is a sacred trust. C.S. Lewis would refer to emotional pain as a severe mercy. I love that. Severe reminds me that it carries limitations. Mercy tells me that precisely because of those limitations there will be unique chances for success. Yet, mental health is not some plot device we wield to yank at heartstrings. That is manipulation, and to do so cheapens what is often a lifelong challenge. Our job as authors is simply to allow mental health issues to motivate our characters as they often motivate us. This connects them to our shared humanity’s fabric.

My Tourette syndrome, panic attacks, and seizure disorder provide a unique vantage point from which to write about the world. I don’t want sympathy, and my characters who struggle with similar conditions don’t either. They want what every person wants; to be seen and to know that someone likes what they see. To know they aren’t alone.

Ultimately, they want the reader to pick up that phone and listen. Don’t be afraid to let your characters make that call.

Jonathan Friesen is an award-winning author and international speaker. He’s the author of eight novels for young adults including the much-anticipated Unfolding (Blink/HarperCollins). His personal experience with Tourette’s inspired him to write the highly acclaimed novel Jerk, California, winner of the ALA’s Schneider Award.


1 Comment

  1. J.A. Richardson

    March 9, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Thanks! I have a MC in my children’s picture book manuscript focused on the fact that having bi-polar makes her behavior unpredictable, which I seriously think I might need to revamp???

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