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Helen West: Mental Health Musings 2024

You know when you find a book that you literally cannot stop reading? The kind of book that you fall into whenever you have a spare moment (and even when you don’t), that you think about when you should be doing something else, and that stays with you for a long time after you’ve finished reading it? To the point where you’ve re-read it multiple times? Those are few and far between for me, but A Silent Song was one of them. This book takes a deep-dive (quite literally) into selective mutism, PTSD, and the anxiety, depression and substance abuse that can come with them. I was delighted when author Helen West agreed to this interview for the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week – over to you, Helen…

Firstly, what does mental health mean to you?

For me, mental health (or ill-health, for that matter) refers to your current state of mind and how it influences your behaviour, your habits, your actions and reactions.

Why did you choose to write about mental health in your book?

It wasn't a conscious decision, honestly. As I was crafting the book, so these issues kind of crept up within the various characters. I didn't shy away from them because everyone deals with some kind of mental health issue. I also never intend to make mental health a feature in my stories - I want the characters and the plot to be the focus. Mental health is something that is part of life now so it makes sense to include aspects of it. A Silent Song was a little different in that a lot of the plot revolved around the selective mutism and the reason for it.

Is there anyone, or any book, that inspired you to write about mental health?

I can't think of a particular book but I would say just discussions with friends and family, knowing how prevalent mental health is, it felt natural to include elements (albeit severe elements) of mental health (and ill-health) in my books. Plus, I cannot stress the benefits of therapy enough. While my story took a unique approach to therapy (both physical and emotional/mental), any form of approved therapy can be beneficial.

Tell me about your research process. What did you do to make sure your mental health representations were accurate?

In A Silent Song particularly, I spoke a lot to one of my friends who is a teacher for deaf children. She's incredible. I understand the whole school setup myself already as a teacher in a previous life. I also pick up a lot of information from TV, radio, articles - I add everything that I see and hear to a document to keep me in that mindset. I also obsessively reread everything I've written multiple times hahaha. I've been in therapy myself, so I drew on that as well.

Do you have any more intentions to write about mental health in the future?

Oh, absolutely. It's part of who I am and I always put something of myself in my books. I think I would struggle to not include an aspect of mental health, even in my fantasy series. It's just always relatable.

Lastly, why did you pick that specific condition to represent in your book? 

Initially, it was the idea of an oxymoron - a brilliant composer who couldn't speak or sing. As the story and characters developed, so did the reasons behind the mutism. I always knew it was selective and the most important part for me was to show that Taylor's coping strategy for what happened to her was totally okay. I didn't want there to be a stigma attached to it. I hope that I managed to convey that.

Do you have anything else you'd like to add?

Don't be afraid to explore mental health in books! It can feel daunting but the pay off can be so worth it - my mental health got so much better after I finished A Silent Song because I realised how bad I was at dealing with my own mental health struggles. Also therapy rocks!

And what better words to finish off the Mental Health Musings event? Thank you to all of my wonderful participants for allowing me to talk to you about this very personal topic.

If you are worried about your mental health, or that of someone around you, here are some helplines you may find useful.

If you’d like to read more books about mental health, I have a list of Sapphic-themed books with mental health rep, which you can find here. Please also check out my books, The Summer We’ve Had and Love You However, both of which have strong mental health themes, discussing Dissociative Identity Disorder and gender-dysphoria-fuelled self-harm, respectively.



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