Perceptions of mental illness have included demonic influences, witchcraft, genetics, and bad parenting. In earlier centuries, degrading practices were the norm for those who suffered.
From the 1700s to the 1900s, even mental health hospitals proved barbaric. They functioned as a means to further punish and isolate patients, providing a solution for families who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them.
In 1886, such rumors of abuse instigated Nellie Bly’s undercover stint at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York City. After she published her findings, the institution implemented reforms. Elsewhere, abominable conditions existed into the 1970s, until President Reagan signed an act to protect patients (1980).
Though we’ve come a long way, mental illness still carries unnecessary stigma which prevents those afflicted from seeking treatment.
In 2018, the American Psychology Association (APA) conducted a survey of 1000+ adults of all ages regarding their attitudes toward mental health issues. Though 87% believed having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, 39% said they’d view someone with a mental disorder differently, and 33% admitted to being scared of such people.
Additionally, despite the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act that ensures insurance benefits for treatment, workplace discrimination still runs rampant. Employees fear losing job opportunities by admitting mental health struggles.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) promotes understanding by dispelling misconceptions, educating the public, and fostering communication. Numerous celebrities have continued that conversation by bringing mental health challenges into the open and encouraging treatment.
For too long, millions of adults suffered in silence, due to stigma. We all know people afflicted with mental illness—family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, maybe even us. Nobody’s immune. The more willing we are to talk openly, the better.
One way to foster understanding and acceptance of mental illness is through the power of STORY. Fiction that features characters with mental health struggles create empathy. Such is the case with Christina Sinisi’s Why They Call It Falling.
Formerly the wild child of three sisters, Emma Marano grew up to be a single mom working two jobs, estranged from her mother, and lying to her friends. She’d told everyone that her daughter’s father wanted nothing to do with his child, but in reality, her own inability to deal with her mistakes and shame led to the biggest lie of her life. But her daughter, Haley, is all Emma has in the world, so how can she regret keeping Haley to herself? Emma’s struggling, though, and her life is slowly imploding.
Right after high school, Justin Lee broke up with Emma Marano and joined the Army, leaving her and all her drama behind. Years later, he stumbles upon her and what turns out to be a daughter he never knew he had. Angry and confused, he insists on having a relationship with his daughter, but to do so, he’ll need to rebuild some sort of relationship with Emma, too. As he gets to know his daughter—and Emma again—he soon realizes that his biggest mistake was leaving her all those years ago. What he dismissed as drama turns out to be a serious mental health issue, and Emma needs help. Now, Justin has to decide if he can see past her flaws and forgive her lies, and together, they’ll have to work to reclaim their love and a faith in each other and in God, or they risk losing something precious in the process.
The title grabbed me first. After reading this story, it made perfect sense.
We need more stories like these, ones that address mental health issues head-on, in this case clinical depression. These are the kind of stories that will increase empathy for those who suffer from mental illness, nudging them to get help while reducing the stigma.
Emma’s downward spiral isn’t obvious to others at first, but is gradually revealed, triggered in high school by a family tragedy. Everything about this situation rings true—Emma as a single mom, suffering alone in shame, surrounded by crazy family dynamics in the aftermath of disaster. Only her sister Tiffany stands by her side, but even Tiffany doesn’t know everything that plagues Emma.
Then there’s Justin, a military man jolted to a new reality when he discovers he has a four-year-old daughter. His promises are complicated by his military obligations—can he even keep his word? Can Emma trust him?
Justin’s parents have to deal with Emma’s fragility and their own anger and sadness over missing four years with their granddaughter. Interactions are precarious and relationships tenuous, both believable and heart-rending.
I was heavily invested in these three-dimensional, very real characters as the story rolled out with some unexpected twists and turns. Near the end, two things confused me, but I can’t share those without spoiling the story. Yet they were minuscule compared to my enjoyment of this novel. I found myself equally immersed in Justin and Emma’s alternate perspectives. I understood their pain, as well as the tension between transparency and holding secrets close.
Above all, faith, hope, and love prevailed in ways I didn’t predict. The faith arc is woven in without being heavy-handed, which I appreciated.
Join me for some Q & A with Christina Sinisi.
Questions about Why They Call It Falling
Why They Call It Falling puts a spotlight on mental health, particularly clinical depression. What prompted you to delve into this topic?
Christina: In my day job, I hold a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology. So, while I am not a clinician (I’m a researcher), I have been in the field for thirty years. I work and train with therapists. In fact, my original reason for going into psychology was that I wanted to learn more about people so I could be a better writer.
How did being a psychology professor influence your story?
Christina: Even though I am a researcher rather than a therapist, I took a number of courses on disorders and mental health issues. I also work with students—a lot of whom struggle with various concerns. I also have a friend who struggles with depression, so I know a lot about the pain.
Finally, on the research side, I teach Positive Psychology which is about helping people be healthier. So, I know there is a need and I wanted to incorporate that need to address mental health in a relatable way.
How did you decide on the story’s situation and which characters to feature? Did you ever consider turning the tables—having your hero rather than heroine struggle with depression?
Christina: On June 6, 2019, I saw an email calling for Christmas novellas due by the end of the month. I wrote Christmas Confusion, the first book in the series, in three and a half weeks. In that book, Emma, the heroine of this one, seemingly abandoned her daughter and did other things which really had no excuse. But now that I was writing her story, I needed to understand why she did what she did without making her a bad person.
So, this book was set up by that novella I wrote so quickly several years ago. The hero came later and needed to be strong to help her out. The choice was based on that original story, not gender. I hope to explore all sorts of characters and stories in the future.
You treat this very heavy topic with great sensitivity. What did you want to implement in order to accomplish that? How did you want this story to resonate with your readers?
Christina: Thank you. As a Christian, I believe we are all in need of redemption. I also think if we truly understand people with all their flaws, we can forgive. I want readers to know that no matter what they are struggling with or what they have done, God loves them. He loves them so much that He sent his only son to die for us.
We’ve all heard that before, but have you thought of doing the same to your own child? I don’t know if I could. But I can try to love at least in imitation of that great love.
Have you written other novels that address mental health themes, or do you plan to? Explain.
Christina: In Christmas Confusion, Tiffany was insecure but strong in her faith. In Sweet Summer, Shelby dealt with grief by taking serious risks and isolating herself from her family. In Christmas on Ocracoke, Annie suffered from anxiety attacks.
Hope of Hatteras, the sequel to Christmas on Ocracoke, has a heroine who struggles with an eating disorder but is in denial. The hero has his own issues in this book (they all do, but how much time is there?) and struggles with never having had a father and a hard-luck Mama. That book is under consideration by an editor right now.
What were the challenges of writing from Emma’s point of view as she wrestled with depression?
Christina: One way I write is to picture the story in my head like a movie. I may make faces and try to describe the expression. This means I may experience some of the feelings the character undergoes and get to the point of almost crying. I hope that depth comes through in the writing.
At the same time, I hope that readers don’t think this is going to be a book that leaves them depressed. Instead, I think the ending is hopeful and contains one of the most romantic scenes I’ve written.
Here’s a quote from one reviewer: “Beautiful. Heartfelt. Emotional. An uplifting and encouraging story reminding us that hope can always be found.”
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Christina: I grew up in the mountains of Virginia to a relatively uneducated family—grandparents with a fifth and eight grade education. So, I started first grade knowing nothing. By third grade, I was writing poetry. In fifth grade, I wrote a play for my class to act out. In eighth grade, I wrote my first novel. I have always wanted to write so I can’t think of a spark. I just love stories.
Now, books that have been influential—recently, Karen Kingsbury and Rachel Hauck have impacted me as a Christian writer.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Christina: Funny you should ask. I have signed up to teach a class on storyboarding for the ACFW At Home Conference this fall. I will be talking all about how I use the Three Act Structure to plot each book. So, readers can check that out or I also have posts on my blog. I take approximately six months to a year to write a book. If I didn’t have a day job, who knows?
Where do your initial story ideas usually originate from–character, plot, setting, or themes?
Christina: That’s a much harder question. Stories seem to pop in my head like a movie—the first scenes are fully developed and then I just do my storyboard and answer questions.
Share something about a future project or the direction you want to go?
Christina: I have Hope of Hatteras with an editor. I just got back edits for the first book in a totally different series, Blue Ridge Promise. My goal is to send that to an agent. I started, maybe a quarter of a follow-up to Blue Ridge titled Sassy. These books are set in the mountains of Virginia where I grew up.
The backbone of the story is the impact of parents splitting up—the mother took the son and left the daughters with their father. Think of the effects on your psyche of knowing your mother didn’t want you.
What’s your best advice for aspiring novelists?
Christina: Write because you love writing. Publishing and selling are beasts, bucking, gouging beasts with teeth and claws. Um, excuse me. Yeah, write because you must and enjoy it! And don’t ever give that up.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you appreciate the handling of depression in Why They Call It Falling, stay tuned for a story I hope to publish someday: Poetry of Storms, about parents who deal head-on with mental illness after their adult child’s diagnosis.
Here’s some non-fiction that’s helpful for understanding mental illness and the role of the church in addressing it:
- Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson
- Whispers in the Pews: Voices on Mental Illness in the Church, by Chris Morris
Previous posts of novels dealing with mental illness:
- Afraid of the Light deals with hoarding — Cynthia Ruchti
- Stories that Bind Us deals with depression — Susie Finkbeiner
Historical fiction about Nellie Bly from the True Colors series — The Gray Chamber, by Grace Hitchcock
Learn more about American’s mental health concerns:
- The APA’s 2018 Mental Health Survey
- Breaking America’s Mental Health Stigma—April 2015
- Intervention Helpline: Where does the stigma behind mental illness stand today?—February 2019
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Christina Sinisi Bio
A member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Christina Sinisi writes stories about families, both the broken and blessed. Her works include a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and the American Title IV Contest where she appeared in the top ten in the Romantic Times magazine. By day, she is a psychology professor and lives in the Low Country of South Carolina with her husband, two children, and her crazy cat Chessie Mae. Learn more on her website/blog.
Join me next time for another visit with author Heidi Chiavaroli.
Meanwhile, have you read Why They Call It Falling? What books have you read that deal with depression or other mental illnesses? Answer in the comments below.