Creative Strategies for Supporting Writers with Mental Illness

Blog Editor’s Note: Recently, arriving at a writing workshop for my MFA, I noticed that a large, adjustable chair with wheels had been set aside near the blackboard. Taped on the back was a note with the name of one of the workshop attendants.

When this student arrived, her eyes briefly scanned the room and found the chair. She pulled it to the table and sat, and during the several hours we worked, she quietly twisted the chair right and left. I learned later that this was a necessary activity for controlling the pain in her chronically strained back.

I remember thinking how great it was that this student could ask for and be provided a tool to accommodate her disability. In this way, she was ensured the same access to the MFA program as every other student.

This experience is brought into even greater relief in the context of today’s post. In “Supporting Writers with Mental Illness,” J.A. Grier asks us to apply the same respect and accommodation for writers with mental disabilities–depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, OCD, etc–that we do for writers with physical disabilities. Let’s join the conversation, Grier says, by including illnesses of psychology and brain chemistry when we devise and  implement strategies for supporting those with disabilities.

HeadshotFinalSquareAll of my notes within this post were added with the author’s input and approval.

–Amy Grier, Blog Editor


Supporting Writers with Mental Illness

by J.A. Grier

You know a writer with mental illness, even if you don’t realize it or know that person by name. Maybe the writer is a friend, or someone in your critique group, or someone you met at a writer’s convention. Maybe it’s someone you are working with on a publication.

Or maybe that writer is you.

writer-with-teaAnd you know the statistics – that one in five adults experiences mental illness each year. You may also know that there are studies that suggest that writers are twice as likely to have mental illness as the general population.

So yes, you know a writer with mental illness.

And to introduce one by name, I am one of them.  I view it as both a disability (as defined by the American’s with Disabilities Act, ADA) and a chronic medical condition. It impacts every aspect of my life, which naturally includes my writing. I am always looking for ways to support myself as a writer with mental illness, and if you are reading this post, then I know you are looking for those ways, too.

Here I’ve compiled a short list of what the writing and publishing community can do to support its writers with mental illness. This is just a short compilation to help everyone join the conversation. Note that many of the suggestions below could apply to any marginalized writer, or even to writers in general. Helping writers with mental illness means helping all writers to improve conditions in the writing and publishing community.

If you are a publisher open to submissions, or working with someone on a piece for publication, critique, or review:

Make submitting easy. Submission guidelines can be overwhelming. Work to streamline your submission process, not only for ease in publishing but for taking one more barrier out of the way of writers facing additional challenges.

Keep expectations clear. Make sure all expectations, directions, timelines, and benchmarks are clear and in writing – go over them together to ensure they are understood. Make sure you have multiple ways to contact the writer you are working with to follow up when necessary.

Be “hands on.” Work with writers to break down larger tasks into smaller pieces with mutuallydiverse-hands-painting agreed upon, realistic, and achievable deadlines. Contact this person regularly and ask what you can do to help, if necessary.

Respect alternate schedules. People with mental illnesses may not be on a “regular” schedule. Instead they are writing when possible, emailing when possible. Do not be offended if someone does not reply to your email right away. Do not assume they are writing or editing on the same schedule you are.

If you are part of a writers/editors/publishers society, or are a convention convener:

Remember mental illness issues. Include mental illness in discussions about disability. Illnesses such as Panic Disorder, Depression, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are recognized as disabilities by the ADA. They can represent life long, chronic disabilities, and need to be recognized.

Many conferences and societies have drafted or adopted Accessibility Statements. These are key to ensuring diversity in these settings. (ed. note: an example: Fans for Accessible Conventions.) Mental Illness accommodations can be included in these statements to further broaden their impact and effectiveness. (ed. note: one great idea: the Quiet Space at the AWP quiet-pictogramconference)

Promote innovative programs. Programs such as mentoring have a proven track record in helping diverse writers succeed. Seek out an implement such programs with your writers with mental illness. (ed. note: CreativeNonfiction.org’s Writing Away the Stigma program.)

Implement Codes of Conduct. Ensure that societies, writer’s meetings, and conferences have Codes of Conduct and plans for exactly what to do if their codes are broken. Many people with mental illness have already been subjected to abuse, harassment, bullying, and discrimination. They do not need to have this happen to them within their writing societies or at meetings. And if it does happen, then it needs to be openly, swiftly, and fairly dealt with. (ed. note: for an interesting and compelling take on the necessity of Codes of Conducts, read Rachel Nabor’s post.)

If you are in any aspect of the community – writer, publisher, editor:

Change perceptions. We all need to work to eliminate false perceptions of mental illness – either positive or negative. The stigma associated with mental illness is very harmful, but so is the erroneous idea that mental illness is somehow a positive muse for writing. It is untrue that depression, say, is a necessary and ‘romantic’ aspect of the successful writers life. Such perceptions need to be challenged and put to rest.

we-power-smallGet educated about mental illness. Take it upon yourself to learn about mental illness. You can start at the National Alliance for Mental Illness, or NAMI.  So often, it is the marginalized who are asked to take the time and effort to help others become more knowledgeable about their status or their condition. We need to take it upon ourselves to be proactive and find a variety of sources of information to educate ourselves.

We all can work in ways large and small to support writers with mental illness, thereby promoting diversity in our community. We all will benefit.

All photos courtesy of Public Domain Pictures


J.A. Grier is a speculative fiction writer, poet, planetary scientist, and astronomy educator whose poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Space and Time, Liquid Imagination, Niteblade, Dragonfly, and a poetry anthology of the Maryland Writer’s Association entitled Life In Me Like Grass On Fire. Other credits include the textbook The Inner Planets published by Greenwood Press, and a host of tweets, occasionally profound but usually otherwise, under @grierja on Twitter. Works in progress include a collection of creepy childhood horror poems and a space opera novel trilogy. Dr. Grier contemplates various astronomy facts and speculative fictions at OneWritersMind.blogspot.com