Q&A

How Do I Avoid Stigma Around Schizophrenia in My Writing?

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Hello again,

I’ve decided to include a character with schizophrenia in my story. I have schizophrenia, and I’ve decided that I want one of my contributions to the world to be a depiction with a character with my condition in a speculative story that isn’t terrible. I have a good and growing understanding of schizophrenia and the plethora of problematic schizophrenia tropes to avoid (i.e. all of them) but in my experience, just using the word “schizophrenia” makes a long and circular explanation about why they shouldn’t freak out, given in the candied voice of death that every retail worker has mastered. So, avoiding those stigmas is hard.

I find myself unsure of whether I should lean towards explicitly contradicting stereotypes by having my character defy expectations within their story, or if I might be able to pull off a positive example in which real world stigmas aren’t included in the story. Also, I know that my experience is limited, and I want to fix my mistakes before they do any damage, so could you please point me to where can I find disability consultants? Thank you for your time.

-Emma

Hello Emma, thanks for writing in!

This is both an exciting and challenging project. It seems to me that there are three related issues wrapped up in your question:

  1. Whether to have confronting stigma be part of the plot of your story.
  2. How to deal with all of the stereotypes that readers bring with them, which will affect how they interpret your story.
  3. How to find a disability consultant who can help you with your project. I’m going to go through each of these individually.

In order to decide whether you want stigma to be part of the plot, you will want to decide what the focus of your story is. What is the one thing you most want people to get out of reading this story? This “one thing” is your focus and it will determine the best way to handle stigma within your story. For example, if your focus is creating a positive depiction of a character with schizophrenia, then it would be great to have a world without stigma that shows readers a better way to do things. Alternatively, if you want to show how harmful stigma is, then having your character struggling against stigma would be important. A disability consultant with knowledge about storytelling structure could help you figure this piece out.

The second issue is dealing with the stereotypes that readers bring with them. This involves being aware of stereotypes specific to schizophrenia, as well as knowing broad stereotypes that commonly come up in disability representation. Even if stigma is not part of your plot, there are many ways to address these stereotypes. Sometimes that involves directly contradicting a stereotype, but it can also involve being explicit about what is happening in the story so that the stereotype is not being reinforced. For example, there is a stereotype about disabled people being bitter about their disabilities. That stereotype could be directly contradicted by creating a cheerful disabled character. Alternatively, that stereotype could also be addressed by having a disabled character that is bitter about the ableism they face, but who is explicitly shown to not be bitter their disability itself.

The third issue is finding a consultant that is a good fit for you. If you feel comfortable bringing in your personal experience and research on the representation of schizophrenia, then a consultant with broad knowledge about stereotypes, disability representation, and writing could be a good fit for you. A good place to start looking for someone with those skills is my list of Disability Consultants for Geeky Projects. I pulled this list together specifically because it can be hard to find consultants and I was getting questions from people looking for consultants for specific things.

However, if you want a consultant who has personal experience with schizophrenia, then your best option would be to search the internet for “schizophrenia sensitivity reader” or ask around in disability-focused social networking groups. When interacting with folks in groups, be sure to follow each group’s code of conduct and let folks know that this is a paid project.

I hope that this helps and gets you going in a good direction!

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Erynus

    I think a good way to handle it is not telling that that is schizophrenia, but showing what happens to the character because of it. The moment you name it is when the tropes jump out of the readers head, so if you show an accurate representation of schizophrenia, only the knowledgeable will get the references (like when the character takes his medication).

    • Fay Onyx

      Mostly how I see this technique used is that folks wait to use it until midway through the story when the experience of the condition is well established.

      Not naming a condition at all can run writers into trouble. A prominent example is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is many people’s least favorite Harry Potter book because they interpret him as angsty, when he is actually struggling with trauma and depression. The fact that it is never named is part of what leads to misinterpretations.

      Not using the term at all has other costs associated with it too. For example, if you want to get your story out there to other folks with the same condition, not using the key word that people google will make that much harder.

      Also, not using the term at all reduces the positive social impact of the story because the stereotypes in people’s heads never get challenged. This can be okay in some situations, but most people do want that positive impact, especially since it can also be empowering. There is a reason why a lot of oppressed groups reclaim words.

  2. Alicia

    Many people misunderstand schizophrenia and think that it is related to dissociative identity disorder or alternatively they don’t know anything about it. That’s where naming the condition can be helpful in creating awareness.

    Another issue with a fantasy story is that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, in particular hallucinations, may be confusing for readers who might think them a form of magic or a characteristic of the world that you are portraying that is visible/audible to everyone. If so, maybe naming the condition before (and if) those types of symptoms appear would help clear things up.

    This sounds like a great project!

  3. Juan

    I faced a similar issue, and still have the question of how to avoid creating painful situation for a reader that would be struggling with schizophrenia, or have a close one who does.
    For example, I recall some of the symptoms that can be found in schizophrenia are paranoia, delusion and sometimes hallucination. But if in a fantasy novel the protagonist has powers and is hunted by bad guys, wouldn’t it be painful for a reader with schizophrenia to be reminded of a time where they were convinced someone was after them, or that they could fly ?
    Or couldn’t seeing these ideas being actually reasonable in the book make it harder for them to accept they are not true in the real world ?

    For now I’ve reduced my ambitions and decided mt protagonist wouldn’t suffer from schizophrenia, but any answer would still help me in case I come back to that idea some day.

    Thank you.

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