Stigma around mental illness is a pervasive societal problem that can cause additional suffering for people already struggling with their disorders. Media portrayals of individuals with mental illness living full and enriching lives can be helpful in combating that stigma. I would argue that this effect is particularly potent when the portrayals are located within films or books that are not solely about mental health, but that discuss those themes within the context of other plot lines. Two recent romance novels feature heroines who undergo therapy for their mental disorders simultaneously with discovering authentic romantic connections. The heroes do not treat the illness, nor does it magically disappear because of their love for the heroines. Instead, as noted above, in both novels, the heroines are seen pursuing professional intervention while their partners provide compassionate support.
One of these novels is On Dublin Street (2012) by Samantha Young. Jocelyn Butler is a deeply traumatized young woman who entered the foster care system when both of her parents were killed in an accident that also claimed the life of her baby sister. Without the space or support to grieve properly, Jocelyn suppressed her feelings and attempted to numb herself through substance abuse and promiscuous sexuality. She does not form close relationships because her fear of another loss is so profound. But when she meets Braden Carmichael and his sister Ellie, Jocelyn finds her defenses crumbling. She enters therapy in order to learn to cope with the increasing intimacy and attachment.
A number of well-received reviews noted that Jocelyn can be difficult to like, particularly when she precipitously re-erects her rigid boundaries at a time of genuine crisis for Braden and Ellie. Jocelyn herself notes:
“And sometimes I freak out, and sometimes my freak-outs hurt the people closest to me.”
There is no question that Jocelyn’s behavior is hurtful. However, both Braden and Ellie are able to move past the problem and continue their relationships with her, Ellie as roommate and best friend and Braden ultimately as husband.
In Honeysuckle Summer (2010) by Sherryl Woods, Raylene Hammond flees her abusive marriage for her hometown and supportive friends, The Sweet Magnolias. Her ex-husband is incarcerated for his assaultive behavior, but he’s left Raylene in a prison of her own-a profound agoraphobia that has her unable even to stand on the porch. She lives inside for around a year, until one day her friend’s son runs off from the backyard while under Raylene’s care. Raylene’s fear prevents her from effectively stopping him and he is finally recovered by the police several blocks away. Carter Rollins is the responding officer, initially furious with Raylene for what he perceives as her negligence but ultimately empathic when he learns of her phobia. As a romantic relationship begins to develop between the two of them, Raylene insists that she is too deeply damaged to love. But Carter shows he is willing to stand by her, as in the following illustrative exchange:
“’I’m practically scared of my own shadow. It’s crazy. I’m crazy.’
‘Don’t you dare say that,’ he said furiously. ‘You have a treatable panic disorder. You’re going to get better.’”
Although Raylene is eventually able to accept and return Carter’s affections, she does not immediately accept the sincerity of his interest (e.g., “the man thinks he’s falling for a woman who’s locked away in some emotional prison and it’s his job to save her”). Carter is eventually able to convince her that he is not seeking to rescue her, but to love her.
Mainstream fiction has the power either to increase stigma or reduce it, depending on portrayals of characters with mental illness. When books show characters with mental illness with strengths, quirks, needs, desires, and other personality facets unrelated to the illness, these books can be helpful in combating negative stereotypes.