The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson
The Bird's Nest
Shirley Jackson

Few conditions are as often stigmatized, misdiagnosed and misunderstood as mental illnesses. Whether schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders, or any other maladies of the mind, you can be sure there has been controversial debate about it. At times it seems as though early treatments were little more than trial and error or process of elimination.

In colonial times, it was widely believed that mental illness was the result of a full moon at the time of a baby’s conception or birth – hence the term “lunatic”. Treatments which by today’s standards sound ludicrous or barbaric were widely accepted in earlier years, and included electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatment), intense bloodletting, alternating immersion in scalding hot and freezing cold water,  drilling holes in the skull to release whatever was causing the perceived insanity, and much more.

One can see the changing attitudes and theories throughout literary fiction, as well. The depiction of the Oregon asylum of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) is a far cry from the kindness, patience and dignity exhibited by the psychiatrist in Ordinary People (1976), which is more traditional and reserved than the unusual , modern, intense therapy Dolores Price undergoes in She’s Come Undone (1992). Depictions of patients, treatment options and caregivers vary widely, depending on the tone of the story and the author's experience. In terms of authenticity, some writers hit the nail on the head, while others miss the mark.

From Boo Radley to R.P. McMurphy, some of literature's most memorable characters have suffered from mental illness, and it's fascinating to see how their stories changed over the years, as the world continues to learn, decipher and understand mental illness.


Mental Illness in Fiction

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
The Memory of Running
Ron McLarty
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry
The Shining by Stephen King
The Shining
Stephen King
The Outward Room by Millen Brand
The Outward Room
Millen Brand
Lowboy by John Wray
Lowboy
John Wray

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