Mental Health in Romance: Crushing the Stigma One Kiss at a Time

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Oh, anxiety and depression. You definitely have a knack for the dramatic. You brought me to my knees in anxious tears while I clutched an ice cream at the local mall. I was only seven. And then there was that time you floored me—literally—with a panic attack-turned fainting spell in the makeup hall of Toronto’s busiest department store, aged twenty-six. It was right in the middle of a mother-daughter makeover. Yay, me! I can smile about it now, but I was mortified at the time (I definitely didn’t require any blush!). Depression has toyed with me as well. I’ve pushed it aside, pretended it didn’t exist, and painted on a smile for the world too many times to count. No wonder, my diagnosis was something called ‘smiling’ depression.

But mental health does not define me. Like you, I am many things: an award-winning author, a dog mum, a chocolate chip cookie fanatic—and a mental health warrior. I’m proud to wear the resiliency badge due to my battles with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. But that wasn’t always the case. It took me years to admit publicly that I have these challenges, and it wasn’t until I wrote my first novel London Belongs to Me (featuring an American playwright with an anxiety disorder), that I decided to speak up. I mean, how could I expose Alex’s trials without opening up about my own? And you know what? It felt liberating. If only I had done it sooner! But I had a good reason for keeping silent about my truth for so long—stigma. You might not notice it if you’ve got nothing to hide, but trust me, for people dealing with mental health issues, stigma is everywhere—at work, in social situations, and in our beloved books.

Stigma loves stereotypes and clichés. How many have you heard, read—or even shared? People with depression can’t get out of bed. Anxiety disorder sufferers are whiny, attention seekers. Depressed individuals are self-absorbed and unreliable at work. Nice, eh? Good luck finding a person who wants to be branded with those ignorant labels. Is it any wonder so many of us stay quiet?

The truth is, folks with anxiety and depression do have moments of unbearable despair when life is crushing them from the inside out, but their affliction is only part of the picture. They’re also brave, productive, and have many moments of success: they go on dates, they get promoted, they’re empathetic, caring friends—all while their anxiety and depression ebb and flow. And that’s the point many people miss—mental health issues aren’t static. They change. And symptoms differ from person to person—one size does not fit all.

So why doesn’t that apply to characters with mental health challenges in romance novels? Why do they too often end up as one-dimensional stereotypes? I’ve asked myself these questions repeatedly, and finally decided to do something about it. I decided to become an own voices author.

My first reason to dive in was personal. I realized that my sensitivity, anxiety & depression help me see the world through a unique perspective—they urge me to write with compassion, love, and understanding. It’s my superpower and hey, why not use it for good? If one person with anxiety or depression comes away after reading my books and feels understood and not alone, I’ve done my job.

Frustration was my second reason. Mental health warriors in books either didn’t exist—period—or anxiety and depression were dropped into stories like a sloppy after-thought, a half-baked quirk used for comic relief or story depth without any substance to show the reality. I’m sorry but mental health isn’t just another character trait like blue eyes, freckles, and a love for white wine. When authors go this route, it screams of ignorance like they couldn’t be bothered to do their research or enlist the expertise of sensitivity readers. Take it from someone who knows, to write mental health well, you can’t just name it. You must get inside it, feel it—the pain, the fear, all of it—and express it truthfully on the page.

So, in my quest to make a difference, not only have I written three novels that offer a realistic and empathetic portrayal of mental health, I’ve also sought out other authors’ books that do, too. Some of these books pre-date mine, some may be from authors who are new to you, but all treat mental health with the respect and care it deserves.

Waiting for the Storm by Marie Landry

Ah, to fall for a sweet summer love story with characters who feel real. Landry, an own voices author with anxiety and depression, doesn’t disappoint with this one. After the death of her beloved mother, Charlotte is lost and heartbroken, struggling with grief and anxiety. A summer spent on a small island seems suffocating to her until she meets Ezra, a swoony, kind-hearted guy whose friendship turns into so much more. Prepare to be swept away. P.S. Keep tissues handy.

Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai

I’m a sucker for a slow burn, sexy romance with characters you can’t get enough of. Enter Wrong to Need You’s Sadia and Jackson. Ah, excuse me for a moment while I fan myself (is it hot in here?). This book is oh, so good with lots of family drama, angst, and secrets. Rai’s portrayal of anxiety and panic attacks is bang on, too. Believe all the stellar reviews for this one.

Without Merit by Colleen Hoover

I knew this book would be a great depression rep even before I read a single page. With CoHo, you know you’re in for some serious truths. In Without Merit, lonely Merit Voss is adrift from the world, carrying secrets she doesn’t dare tell. And then Sagan comes into her life with his positive air and supportive nature. He helps Merit learn that depression doesn’t define her (more of this, please). Colleen Hoover is an auto-buy author for me, so I was thrilled mental health took center stage.

Broken by Nicola Haken

If you’re looking for a m/m romance featuring a couple you’ll think about long after you’ve read the final page, check out Haken’s Broken. A rollercoaster of emotion, steamy scenes, and great characters, James and Theo’s story unfolds in the world of book publishing. James is bi-polar and suffers from depression. He’s also his company’s CEO and Theo is his new employee—the man he hooked up with and thought he’d never see again. (Please note: this engaging book also contains self-harm and thoughts of suicide).

Pull Me Close by Sidney Halston

As someone who has had her fair share of panic attacks, I applaud Halston’s depiction. She gets it. The book starts off with Katherine in a nightclub having an attack and you can feel her heart racing and palms sweating like you’re right there beside her. Depression and PTSD are also handled with great care, and you get ah-may-zing sexual chemistry with Katherine and Nico. 

Until the Last Star Fades by Jacquelyn Middleton

Hey, this one looks familiar. My most recent release is the slow-burn, friends to lovers story of Scottish actor Ben and NYU senior Riley who bravely deals with a misunderstood mental health diagnosis called smiling depression (yep, that’s what I have). Riley’s got a lot on her plate: mounting student debt, a long-distance hockey-playing boyfriend, and a mother fighting cancer. This New York love story is a sexy, heartbreaking, and hopeful tale about strangers who change each other’s lives forever. 

My two other books, London Belongs to Me (contemporary coming-of-age with a touch of romance), and the multiple award-winning London, Can You Wait? (contemporary romance) feature Alex Sinclair’s struggle with anxiety and panic attacks in London’s theater scene while she gets hot and heavy with Vespa-riding, Irish actor, Mark Keegan.

I hope I’ve added a few more reads to your TBR. The more we read (and talk) about mental health, the less stigma will exist. Many people assume that individuals with anxiety and/or depression are weak, spineless, even wimps. But oh, man, it’s so not true! Mental health warriors are strong and resilient, and we need more books to show that! When stigma perpetuates, it keeps some individuals from being their true selves, and in some cases, prevents them from seeking help. It’s dangerous and needs to stop. Now. Hopefully, these books and characters will entertain and make you think. Happy reading!

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
Until the Last Star Fades by Jacquelyn Middleton, out now!

Could you be the one who changes everything?

In her senior year at NYU, Riley Hope appears to be on top of the world. With a loving mother who makes Lorelai Gilmore look like a parenting slacker, ride-or-die friends, and a longtime boyfriend destined for the National Hockey League, she puts on a smile for the world. But behind it, she’s drowning. Racked with fears for the future, she struggles to stay afloat amid life in the shadows of a heartbreaking illness.

And then, Ben Fagan comes crashing into her life. Twenty-three-years old, British, and alone in the Big Apple after a disastrous pilot season in LA, the struggling actor is looking for an escape: booze, mischief, sex—minimum commitment, maximum fun—anything to avoid returning across the pond.

As they form an unlikely bond, Riley keeps her reality from Ben so that he remains a happy refuge. But how long can she hold back the truth…and is Ben keeping his own secrets, too?

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