If you read about mental health, sooner or later you will come across the Mental Health Cinderella Story. This type of story has a simple narrative: person suffers from mental illness, then finds a magical treatment or coping strategy and recovers, living happily ever after. It masquerades as a positive story about mental health because it supposedly gives hope to people who are suffering, but it can actually make people experiencing mental health problems feel pretty shit.
The problem with the Mental Health Cinderella Story is its simplicity. We all need to simplify stories about our lives — it’s natural and necessary — but we need to be aware of the effects of simplification and the inherent biases involved.
Oversimplification is demotivating, rather than empowering.
Most Mental Health Cinderella Stories are intended to be inspiring, yet they fail. Why? Because they portray the experience as black and white, glossing over the struggles and hardships. They present a certain treatment or coping strategy, such as antidepressants, CBT or walking, as a miracle cure. As soon as the miracle cure is adopted, they make linear progress towards complete recovery.
These stories rarely acknowledge that the treatments or coping strategies used can be difficult for many people with mental health problems to access. They don’t mention that many people experience awful days, weeks and months while using the “miracle cure.” The focus is on the evangelistic promotion of the particular “miracle cure” they have adopted.
Imagine how it feels to read such stories when you are already using the “miracle cure”, plus several other treatments and coping strategies, yet you are still struggling to manage your mental health.
I’m relatively well, compared to what I have experienced in the past, yet Mental Health Cinderella Stories make me feel like a failure. I find myself wondering what’s wrong with me, that I haven’t made a full recovery when I’m doing exactly what this person recommends? Why do I still experience terrible days, whereas this person doesn’t?
The storytelling bias.
The truth is that some people’s experiences of mental health problems do align to the Mental Health Cinderella Story. They struggle, then they find a way to cope which enables them to make a full recovery and, often, never experience mental illness again. Good for them — I certainly don’t want them to suffer for the rest of their lives! The problem is, these types of stories are reported far more frequently and visibly than the messy, complex stories which resemble a lot of people’s experience of mental health issues.
My theory is that many people, especially those who haven’t experienced mental health problems, like to read or hear these stories because they are reassuring. They think, whether consciously or subconsciously, “it’s okay if I become mentally ill, because I can do what this person did and recover quickly by running/eating healthily/having a certain type of therapy.” It’s frightening for them to consider experiences, like mine, in which mental health issues have massive, long term effects on people’s lives.
Nobody likes to think that they could try their best to improve a situation and still fail. Yet it happens.
It’s frightening. It terrifies me, having lived through times when I believed everyone around me was cruel for not helping me to die, because I was suffering so much and nothing I did seemed to make a difference. However, ignoring reality isn’t the answer — which is what happens when the media tell certain stories, but not others.
Look beyond the sensationalist headlines.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Mental Health Cinderella Story is that they are not always as simple as they are depicted. When you look beyond the clickbait headlines, a more complex story often emerges. Unfortunately, this message gets lost behind the sensationalism and perpetuates the myth of the “miracle cure.”
The stories are edited to fit the Cinderella arc, forcing experiences into discrete shapes and overlooking inconvenient aspects like relapses and factors other than the “miracle cure.” Many of the stories feature people who have resources which put them in a better position to effectively manage their mental health: financial security, supportive partners, understanding employers, access to various leisure groups and support services, etc. They are predominantly white, heterosexual, middle class, educated people with traditional families. Yet none of these privileges is acknowledged in the Mental Health Cinderella Story, because the emphasis is put on the “miracle cure.”
If you don’t fit the same profile, or don’t have access to similar resources, these stories are more likely to evoke despair than hope. You come to the conclusion that the miracle cure hasn’t worked for you because you aren’t the “right” type of person.
Look for the motive.
A lot of Mental Health Cinderella Stories are selling something. Literally. People tell unrealistic versions of their stories because they want you to buy a product or service they are offering.
The product or service varies — I have seen the Mental Health Cinderella Story used to sell cookbooks, therapy sessions, online courses and books — and may not be obvious. For example, people tell their story to urge you to visit their website and then offer goods/services via the website. They claim to provide you with the “miracle cure” that worked for them.
I don’t have a problem with people selling stuff — there’s nothing wrong with trying to earn money — but I do have a problem with the overwhelming predominance of the Mental Health Cinderella Story and its unrealistic, narrow portrayal of mental health problems.
When you read these stories, be aware of what the author is trying to sell. Bear in mind that the story rarely (if ever) represents reality.
Be responsible when you tell your story.
I encourage everyone who has experienced mental health issues to tell their stories — we need much wider representation of different types of stories, from a much wider range of people. However, when you choose how to present your story, think about the effects it may have on people who are struggling with their mental health. Show them the truth, in all its messy, inconvenient and terrifying glory. Show them that there is hope — but you don’t need a miracle cure to find it.
Realise that the obstacles you have faced, and continue to face, give meaning to your story. Tell people about your challenges: days when your mood plummets for no apparent reason, the pain and isolation you felt (or continue to feel) at various points in your life, panic striking during routine activities, the times when your coping strategies make no difference, people in your life not understanding why you can’t do certain things or why your mental health fluctuates, not being able to do the things you enjoy (or not enjoying the things you do), wasting hours trapped in negative thought patterns, being too scared to leave the house…
Also remember that the challenges make your achievements all the more poignant and inspiring, as much as you would prefer not to be forced to cope with them. Tell people why you are proud of being able to do activities others find easy, after not being able to do them during worse periods of mental illness. Walking the dog on your own is a big deal when you have been unable to do it for ages. You should celebrate these seemingly-small achievements, as well as the big ones.
Most of all, beware of any stories about mental health which have a simple, easy narrative. “Happily ever after” is for fairy tales. You may recover fully from mental illness and you may be happy for the rest of your life, but there will still be problems and challenges. Conversely, you may struggle with your mental health for the rest of your life, but there can still be joy and triumphs amongst the struggle.
Tell your stories and seek out real, complex mental health stories. Try different treatments and coping strategies to discover what works for you and don’t be surprised if their efficacy fluctuates. Don’t place all your hopes on a “miracle cure” which may or may not work. Find real hope — it’s out there, but not in an unrealistic Cinderella story.