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Can Novels Really Humanize Mental Illness?

 

“How did Tanya J. Peterson know what is going on inside my head?  Can she read my thoughts? My Life in a Nutshell hit very close to home for me.” —Teressa M. with Window on the World

To receive such a comment is one of the most meaningful, and the most exciting, compliments I could possibly receive as a novelist. My characters face mental health challenges and live with mental illness, and it’s my hope that readers bond deeply with my characters and maybe even love them. Why? It will lead to increased understanding and empathy in the real world.
I write novels about mental illness and mental health challenges. My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel tells Brian Cunningham’s story. Brian lives with debilitating anxiety disorders, and he lives a severely limited life. He’s lonely, but he feels powerless to do a thing about it. A seven-year-old child named Abigail wriggles her way into Brian’s closed-off world, resulting in increased pain yet increased potential for life.
Oliver Graham and Penelope Baker (and her fiancé William) are the focus of Leave of Absence. Oliver, crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression after the traumatic loss of his family, is hospitalized against his will. Penelope, wrestling with schizophrenia and the harm it has done to her life, wants to set her fiancée free. Will friendship and connection help them?
Novels humanize mental illness and increase empathy for people living with mental health challenges.I do indeed hope that readers fall in love with Brain and Abigail, Oliver, Penelope, and William. To love them is to connect with them. Human connection is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Connection to characters leads to increased connection, empathy, and understanding of people in the real world outside the pages of a novel.
I’m a nationally certified counselor. I also have personal experience with mental illness. I’ve lived with anxiety disorders (generalized and social), biopolar 1 disorder, and the effects of brain injury. In my life experience, I’ve learned that mental illness is misunderstood.
The illnesses, be they depression, anxiety, PTSD, depression, or a whole host of others, are misunderstood, which means that people who live with them are misunderstood. Misunderstanding can lead to fear and prejudice, which makes those living with mental health challenges feel isolated, alone, and hopeless.
I write novels—Leave of Absence, My Life in a Nutshell, and Twenty-four Shadows (coming in spring, 2016) to deepen empathy and compassion, to humanize mental illness. When people love the characters in a novel, they empathize with them. That empathy is often transferred to real-life human beings. Additionally, and icing on the cake, people can be entertained in the process as they enjoy connecting and loving characters.

“Here’s the thing about Peterson’s work: her characters are key. Peterson isn’t afraid to show the true side of human nature, to open doors that society has slammed closed, and examine what truly makes us tick. I fell in love with her two main characters in My Life in a Nutshell.” — Ellen M. with The Canon

Humanizing Mental Illness; Increasing Empathy

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