10 tips for writing your story about mental illness

There are a lot of reasons why writing about mental illness is important, though to me, the most important is so that you can let others know they are not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 20% of American adults experience some form of mental illness each year, with a similar number for people under the age of 18. When you sit down and look at the statistics and the impact of mental illness you can begin to understand that mental health is a challenge that affects everyone from those subject to mental health challenges, loved ones, to health providers, insurance, and the lack thereof. It’s remiss to say that an unfortunate outcome is that a person suffering from mental illness feels so alone when so many suffer from similar difficulties.

In the past five years, the number of people who are interested in writing about mental illness has grown more than I’ve ever seen. Happily, this is because awareness is more present as well as the willingness to share personal experiences.

Still, the hesitance to write about personal challenges always exists. In time, that is not a road block for most, as by nature once we begin talking about ourselves it’s as if a dam has broken open and the floodwaters prevail.

So, when writing about mental illness, where do you start? Here are a couple tips!

Have a goal

When writing anything, having a goal is important to the success of your manuscript and it’s completion. When you are writing about your mental illness it is helpful to have a goal regarding how you want to present your story and who you are speaking to. A few questions to keep in mind are:

  • Do I just want to tell my story?
  • Do I want to inspire others?
  • Do I want others to know they are not alone?
  • Am I speaking on anyone’s behalf?

Understanding who you are talking to and what you want those people to know will help you tell your story in a way that is more enlightening than simply talking about your challenges, though your mental health challenges are more important than you likely realize.

Don’t be afraid to Let it all out… and hold back

It is okay to say what you want to say. One concern I find when I interview people, all people, is that they are not willing to reveal everything. Over time the fears, concerns, and inspiring moments come out, but it does take time. You are in control of what you say and how you say it and editing is on your side. Your book is about you and if you want to edit back later, that is your decision.

Naturally, this isn’t easy for everyone, nor should it be expected. If you find that you are not able to let it all out, then simply write what you are comfortable with. The more you write, the more comfortable you will become. So, if a chapter on contemplating suicide is too much at the moment, write about the person who inspired you to seek therapy or how your best friend somehow “gets you” when others may not.

Find empowerment in what you write

This is your moment to shine, though there is no doubt you are nervous. One thing about writing is that it is empowering. You have full control over every aspect of the process. And yes, this includes when working with a writer. In fact, an experienced writer will reinforce your control, especially in the moments you are doubting yourself.

Mental illness has many challenges including low self-esteem, introverted behaviour, fear, anxiety, depression, and a feeling of self-worth. While writing about your challenges may not be a “cure,” often getting your obstacles on paper, talking about them, and recalling your emotions is a way to put your life into perspective. Often perspective can show you how strong you really are, the obstacles you’ve overcome, and your bravery.

Just say what’s on your mind

It’s important to have a goal, but don’t let your goal stop you from writing about what is on your mind. If you want to write about an awesome tennis match then do it. If you want to write about someone who inspires you, then do it. Writing about mental illness does not mean you only need to write about mental illness.

Don’t wait to be inspired

I’ve written plenty about people who say they can only write when they are inspired. I’ll give you one tip here and that is that writing inspires. So, if you are waiting around to be inspired, you’ll wait for a long time. Whether you jot a few notes into a journal or notebook, tap away at the keyboard, or talk into a digital recorder, as long as you are getting your story out, you’re doing well.

Work in small steps if need be

Along with the previous note on inspiration, working in small steps is often just as effective (more so) than trying to binge-write when you are inspired. 100 words a day, 500 words a day, set a minimum goal and celebrate your ability to achieve it.

It’s understandable that when you’re in a rut you won’t want to write at all. That is fine. Just try to hit your minimum goal as often as you can. One new writing program I’ve been using lately is Dabble which has a nifty goal setting program that calculates your words per day goal based on your overall word goal and completion goals. So, if you write more on one day, that will reduce your future per-day goals.

Work with a professional writer

Here it is. Ah, those shameless plugs. (see below) Yep, I’m a writer and as you probably know I write books for others. An experienced writer has the discipline, patience, advice, tricks, and hopefully the comfort level to help you tell your story. I would love if you choose to work with me to write your book, but really, my passion is just to convince people that their lives and stories are worth writing. After all, the future will learn from your experiences. So, if I am not a fit for you, do your homeowrk and find a writer who is. He or she is out there.

Emotions are important

While writing I want you to try and convey two things. I want you to try and convey your emotions and the response that your emotions forced. Try not to focus on the impact of your actions or how others may have been affected. Pretend that you are a story-teller hidden deep within the confines of your body. All you can see and hear is what you can see and hear inside yourself. When suffering from mental illness it is difficult to accurately process what another person is feeling or thinking. It’s hard enough to know what you are feeling. By eliminating (or trying to) the anxiety of focusing on others, you can focus on yourself and what you want to concentrate on in your writing.

Stock up on tissue boxes

Will you cry? Yep! Will I cry? Probably. Writing about mental illness is difficult, emotional, and filled with a lot of tears. It is okay to cry. It is okay to express your emotions. It is okay to be you.

Remember: you are in control

You probably understand this by now, but I think it is worth mentioning again. You are in control of your life. You are in control of what you write. You are in control of what you keep in your book and what you edit out. This is one of the reasons why someone who suffers from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses may not be able to talk to their family about their challenges, but open up to me during an interview. You are in control.

Writing about mental health challenges is, well, challenging. From fear to emotions not everyone is comfortable talking about who they are, what they are thinking, or what they fear. But, rememeber early on when I said there have been more peopel interested in writing about their mental health challenges than I’ve ever seen before. It’s true, and that is because people like you have inspired others to speak out and be comfortable as the person they are. You are important, your story is important, and you are not alone.


I am a full-time freelance writer specializing in books, though I also write blogs, web-content, and handle several other types of projects. To see what I offer visit my rates page or contact me with specific queries and questions. I’m also available to help mentor you through your first book. I’d love to work with you, and if you know anyone else looking for a writer I offer a generous referral fee.

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