Book Talk: Psychiatric Hospitals Aren’t Torture Chambers

Psychiatric Hospitals Really Aren’t Torture Chambers: A Smol Rant

Posted November 23, 2018 by Amber in Bookish Things, Memes / 10 Comments


Major spinoff from this week’s Book Blogger Hop topic, but it reminded me of this huge pet peeve I have in a few books I’ve read in the last two years.

That is to say – what is up with some of these representations of psychiatric hospitals?!  In the modern world, there is still a lot of stigma around poor mental health and asking for help.  While I agree that we have made leaps and bounds in the last couple decades to breathe understanding and tolerance and the truth into the world, that doesn’t make it any easier.

So it really doesn’t help when YA novels pop up portraying these places – both in the real world and fantasy locations – as incompetent hell holes.  If we are surrounded by those negative images, getting help is even harder.  Because that’s how we imagine “help” will look.

I first noticed it when I listened to The Iron Thorn last year – Aoife’s mother is in that world’s version of a psychiatric hospital.  And as the story goes on, it turns out the facility was doing horrible things to her.  I forgave this one a bit, because it was a steampunk fantasy universe and not our real world, so a Victorian-style institution made a little more sense there.  I didn’t like it, but I accepted it.

Then I read Splintered.  You can hear all about my feelings about that book in my review AND My Most Disappointing Reads of 2017 AND Top Ten Tuesday’s Books I Can’t Believe I Read AND my laments on my inability to find a fulfilling Alice in Wonderland retelling.  In short, I have a lot of opinions about Splintered but one of the things that made me scream the MOST was how the asylum was handled. HALF my review is calling out this asylum, which did the following things:

  • Straitjackets.  NO GUYS.
  • Skipped psychotherapy and went right to ECT.  THAT DOESN’T REALLY HAPPEN.
  • Incompetent staff who don’t have time for things like patients.  OMG NO.
  • Called the family at the end to say “Oops, we gave her meds that made her crazy.  That’s on us.” WHY. NO. STOP.

This is all from what I remember of a book I read last December… this is the stuff that stuck with me.  I say again.  This is not the Victorian Era.  STOP THIS NONSENSE.

I will, on the other hand, list a few books I thought handled getting help for mental illness very well:

  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan – We see this from the perspective of the family, but you can see the whole process and the struggle and unfortunately also that there are not always happy endings.  Additionally, I have a huge amount of respect for Emily, who is transparent with her own experiences.
  • Love & Other Carnivorous Plants by Florence Gonsalves – While I thought that Danny was sort of a mess and I didn’t like Danny’s EO rep particularly, I thought Gonsalves did an amazing job with Bugg.  Bugg, who understood the merits of checking herself into rehab, and who tried to get better.
  • Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler – This book is a fictionalized recollection of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, and her 1930s mental institution rep is better than some modern rep I’ve seen.
  • Turtles All The Way Down by John Green – While Aza struggles to accept help, the encouragement of her loved ones is important and the help she gets… helps.  It’s what gives her a happy-ish ending.

This is definitely just a small sampling of good examples.  I know there are so many more out there, so please leave me more titles in the comments and I’ll add them to my TBR. 🙂

This week’s Book Blogger Hop asks:

You meet an interesting person of the opposite sex at a club. Suddenly, they start acting as if they’re a character in a novel you’ve read, and they are firmly convinced that they ARE that character. First, which character is it, and second, how do you react?


Short answer:  I honestly don’t even know what to do with this question?  1.) I don’t go to clubs; 2.) I’ve never really been the “book boyfriend” type?  I’d have to say at the moment he’d be Gansey from The Raven Boys because that’s what I’m reading as I write this, and secondly, I’d want to pick his brain for all the fascinating legendary and historical knowledge he has accumulated.  Then I’d remember this conversation is super creepy because he’s half my age.

This post came from association, sorry!  “Are firmly convinced they are that character” > Multiple Personality Disorder > Psychiatrist hospital > WTF bad YA rep.


What are some examples of bad mental health rep you’ve come across?

What are some really good ones?

What bookish character would you like to meet at a club?

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10 responses to “Psychiatric Hospitals Really Aren’t Torture Chambers: A Smol Rant

  1. Great post! I also really appreciated the way Aza’s therapist was handled in Turtles All the Way Down, as well as how encouraging her friends and family were that she got help. I don’t read a lot of novels set in modern times, but I definitely agree that those books ESPECIALLY need to have a good representation of mental institutions, and if fantasy and scifi could do it too that would be a big bonus.

    • Amber

      Definitely. I can see why sci-fi and fantasy make different choices based on their particular world building choices, but I’d REALLY like to see that sort of strong support in Contemporary.

  2. I read a book called The Thing with Feathers about a girl with an eating disorder who goes to a psychiatric facility, and the portrayal of that facility (and of all the doctors who worked to help her) was SO negative. It really bugged me how much the psychiatric community was demonized in the book, and I kept thinking that no one with an eating disorder would ever want to get help after reading it.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction recently posted: Fun with SPAM! #5
  3. This is such an important post- I think the whole “scary asylum” trope is used so often (especially in historical fiction/steampunk” that it’s hard to forget it’s a trope and not reality. While there likely were asylums/mental health facilities that were not patient friendly in the past, I think mental health treatment has come a LONG way from that overall and using it as a “scary” element in books does a disservice to readers.

    Great post!

    Cristina (Girl in the Pages) recently posted: What’s On My Library List [1]
    • Amber

      Thank you so much!

      Yes, I entirely agree. There was certainly a period where patients were perceived like animals and unfortunately treated as such, but that period was soooooo brief and as you say, medicine and our understanding of mental health can come leaps and bounds since that age.