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Suggestions when writing characters with Mental Illnesses

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  • Suggestions when writing characters with Mental Illnesses

    Hi guys! We've all seen the new shelf and it's clear that we're not happy with it. So I asked myself the question: How can I make my story more diverse? Well I follow this amazing page on instagram called epy.diversity and some amazing authors who make some great points but one thing I find lacking is non-stereotypical characters with a mental illness. I feel like most of us tend to avoid writing such characters to avoid offending people and making incorrect assumptions so I've made this thread for everyone who has an opinion or advice on this topic for all authors.

    So comment below on what you would like to see (or not see) on Episode when characters with mental illnesses are involved. Feel free to comment f you are someone with a mental illness and you have been offended or misunderstood or if you know someone in that position.

    We are all entitled to our own opinions but please be considerate of other peoples feelings.

    I'll start:

    1. I would like to see less characters who are villains because they are 'mentally ill'. I feel as though this portrays people with mental illnesses as harmful/violent/heartless and so on and I think that this makes people ask themselves questions such as "Am I like this?" "Will I be like them?" and it creates many misconceptions about people with mental illnesses. If you do write a character like that, add a disclaimer or simply avoid writing such character. (That's my personal opinion, you don't have to agree.)

    2. Addiction is not something that is easily cured by a speech. This just creates an impression that people with addictions are simply not trying hard enough or have flaws in their characters. However that is not the case. My grandfather has an alcoholic and I WISH it was that simple but it isn't

    3. OCD is not about being a neat freak. My friend's maths teacher has OCD and it is not that simple.

    4. Know that psychiatrists and psychotherapists are different. (I found this one on the web)

    Psychiatrist – expert in diagnosing mental health problems and prescribing medication, with some knowledge of giving talking therapies to patients (e.g. CBT, psychotherapy)
    Psychotherapist – expert in deliverying a specific type of talking therapy – usually psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic psychotherapy or psychodynamic psychotherapy.

    5. Someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder (what you guys refer to as 'split personality') would not kill someone when they are in one of their alter personality state unless the core personality would also kill! I see many antagonists in stories which have this and they blame killing or hurting others on their alter personality.

    Don't be afraid to do your research, ask questions and more importantly let's help each other! It's the only way we will learn and help this community to grow.

  • #2
    The only apprehension about writing characters with mental illnesses is that even with all the research people could do, they would still portray the mental illness improperly and quite possibly offend anyone with that said mental illness or someone who has a friend/family member with that mental illness. For example, people suspected Maria from the Demi series of being bipolar and thought that they had enough knowledge of bipolar to suggest that Maria maybe had bipolar, but in reality Maria didn't even switch between mania and depression. All they had to "justify" it was her switching between rude and nice (which mind you, is what Regina George also did, but I don't see anyone calling Regina bipolar).

    So, I'm all for more diversity with mental illnesses (my own aunt has bipolar and my mom worked with people who had other mental illnesses), but ONLY if they're portrayed accurately and the author knows 100% that they're portraying it accurately. Not like "oh, I did some research and this is probably how they'll act."


    • Fate
      Fate commented
      Editing a comment
      You are absolutely right! After all we can't trust everything we see on the internet and they are "general" symptoms so different people with the same mental illness will not necessarily act the same and getting information from someone who has said mental illness is the best kind of research in my personal opinion because you are getting facts and simply googling the definition or something is not enough. Thanks you for saying this!

    • kelabell2001
      kelabell2001 commented
      Editing a comment

      Yeah, I just get upset when people portray people with mental illnesses incorrectly because I know lots of people with mental illnesses, and if they're portrayed incorrectly, I feel like it could minimize their illnesses or make people think differently (in a negative way) about the mental illness, especially if it's a story that gets a lot of reads.

    • Fate
      Fate commented
      Editing a comment
      Same! I feel like this causes people with mental illnesses to feel bad about themselves and it just brings them down and I also know lots of people with mental illnesses and they already get treated badly for being different and the misconceptions just make them seem like monsters and they're not!

  • #3
    Oh boy, time for my psychology nerd rant!

    1. Stop delivering the message of "all psychologists are evil predators" in stories that feature therapy. Some people do have legitimate reasons to fear seeing a psychologist (based on historical precedent) without those fears being symptomatic of their illness. However, unless she has Borderline Personality Disorder (which is still massively stigmatized even among mental health professionals) your able-bodied middle-class cishet white girl is not one of those people. That isn't to say psychologists can't be villains, but seeing every fictional psychologist portrayed exactly the same way is incredibly boring, cliche, and just gives people more reason to fear seeking help.

    2. Dissociative Identity Disorder ("split personality") is so rare that writing a case study if you see a real case of it is practically a professional obligation. Almost nobody who has actually been diagnosed with it was violent. Furthermore, if you have DID you're not going to only have a main personality and a secondary one. That's actually one of the biggest signs that someone is faking it to avoid trouble. If you look at any of the case studies, you'll likely find that the person in it usually has way more than two, usually in the double digits.

    3. There's more than one type of bipolar disorder. None of these types are as simple as switching between happiness and sadness at the drop of a hat. Cyclothymia is the most rapidly-cycling and least severe type, but even then there's a whole lot more to it than what people portray.

    4. Schizophrenia isn't always hearing scary voices and being paranoid all the time. There's practically no end to the variety of symptoms you could be using for your characters instead of making them into a horror cliche of "the voices told me to do bad things", especially if you're going to use that cliche to make people with that sort of schizophrenia seem scary instead of the ones who are actually afraid.

    5. Psychoanalysis isn't as common nowadays as CBT, which is more scientific. That being said, there are also more than two types of therapy out there and which one the psychologist uses depends largely on their training, specialization, and the individual's needs. Research more and broaden your horizons.

    6. It's extremely rare for a mental health hospital to use straightjackets and padded cells, even for high-risk patients. Some countries have literally banned them because - surprise surprise! That sort of "treatment" is considered inhumane.

    7. With the exception of a few personality disorders, mental illnesses hurt the people who have them way more than anyone else who's close to a person with a mental illness.

    8. Stop pretending mental illnesses can't be treated. Some have better prognoses than others, but most are treatable.

    9. Don't write about mental illness just because you find it "interesting". That's a terribly ableist reason. I can assure you that most people actually suffering from mental illnesses don't think it's cool or interesting..

    10. Most people on the autism spectrum don't consider it a mental illness (technically, neither do psychologists; neurological and developmental disorders are separate from what they label as mental illnesses). It's more like a normal human difference, and therefore a form of diversity. However, I do feel the need to mention that you should do your research and portray it properly anyway. First of all by respecting the tendency to view it as neurodiversity rather than an illness and also by not using stereotypes. Autism isn't some socially awkward white boy who likes trains a lot and feels left out of life. People of literally any race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. can be on the spectrum, most don't feel like there's anything about them that needs to be "fixed" (though not everyone feels that way), special interests can be just about anything, and people don't grow out of their neurological differences as they get older. A lot just learn how to blend in with a society that seems to work against them and their ways of thinking.

    11. Depression is more than "I'm sad a lot" and anxiety is more than "I worry a lot". With severe depression, people may not even feel any emotions anymore. Look at the symptom lists and listen to people who actually have these illnesses talk about their experiences.


    • MabelSweater
      MabelSweater commented
      Editing a comment
      I have lived with anxiety for many years. Thank you for clarifying that it is more than worrying a lot. It is at times a debilitating condition mentally and physically, but other times can be under a certain amount of control. It often goes hand-in-hand with other conditions, especially depression. I've thought of exploring a story about a character with anxiety based on my experiences and those of some family members once I'm more advanced with the directing aspect of Episode.

    • -Trisa
      -Trisa commented
      Editing a comment
      I'm making a story that has the main character diagnosed with severe depression. If I get a comment saying this is fake, I don't even know what to do anymore because I AM diagnosed with severe depression so hands down i'm just done.

    • SnowflakeCookie
      SnowflakeCookie commented
      Editing a comment
      I personally have had bad traumatic experiences with people with autism, so I am just a little confused as to how it isn’t a mental illness. I have PTSD, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts/intentions, major paranoia, and voices in my head (not intentions anymore, just sometimes random thoughts. It is hard to explain). Plus I also suffer from chronic headaches. I have such bad anxiety I can barely function outside my house, and constantly have my eyes twitching.

  • #4
    Basically, the worst mistake you can make is not research enough. You have to see and hear about real life cases, and not stuff you see in some movie. You need to check all symptoms throughly but consider how they are actually portrayed in real life... Like, don't just read a few lines in Wikipedia and base your character on that!


    • #5
      Definitely research! And also put things like:
      1. Albinos. The main character in one of my upcoming stories was diagnosed with Albinism. I don't see many people who put albinos in their story, so it's unique and diverse.
      2. RESEARCH... Don't just base your characters off of your opinion, or one person you know with it. Addiction to drugs doesn't mean you live on the streets, stuff like that.
      3. Be creative. You don't have to make your main character have anxiety, depression, ocd, be asexual, black all in one! It can be spread out throughout stories.
      4. Don't force it. If your character goes to an all girls school, it's fine to have all girls, vice versa for boys. If your character lives in a mainly black community, it's alright to make it mainly black. Don't make it diverse for the reads, make sure it suits your story. (Not everyone will agree on this one...)


      • Miss Molly
        Miss Molly commented
        Editing a comment
        Just gonna pop in quickly and clarify that albinism isn't a mental illness, but rather so a genetic mutation that an individual is born with. I'm sure you're already aware of this (considering your post isn't necessarily all about mental illness, but rather so just diversity in general), but I wanted to point this out for those scrolling through and are unaware.

        My mother has OCA1a albinism, and this mutation certainly hasn't caused any mental illness as a result, and she essentially lives her life just the same as anyone else (except for her very poor eyesight, haha).

      • Lum
        Lum commented
        Editing a comment
        I agree with the 4th one, but I'd like to clarify that some people ignore minorities even if they are clearly present in certain enviroments. For example, you can still have a lesbian character in a Catholic school even if some religious clerics are strongly against homosexuality, etcetera.

      • PastelleRose
        PastelleRose commented
        Editing a comment
        Highly religious schools probably won’t have people coming out. In my school (I’m in England), it’s catholic but not all students are catholic. A lot of people are out, and the majority are okay with it.

    • #6
      I personally think it's hard to write about mental Illnesses unless you have been through it or have someone close to you that you have seen go through it otherwise I don't think you will get a correct depiction based just off of research...


      • #7
        So, here's the thing. I have actually read lots of stories with characters that either explicitly or implicitly have some kind of mental illness, be it anxiety, depression, etc. There are slim to no stories where the main plot centres around mental illness. While I am a huge proponent for representation, I think a plot centred around mental illness would be very tricky for the following reasons:

        1) Mental illnesses become very personal, and differ for every person who has them. It's not as simple as searching up "symptoms of depression". People who suffer from the same mental illnesses may have a lot of common symptoms, but they will also always have their own individual symptoms as well. Without having gone through it, it would be incredibly difficult to portray accurately.

        2) More and more, we are pushing to end the stigma on mental illness. We want people who suffer from mental illnesses to know that they are more than that, that their lives are not their anxiety, their depression, their bipolarism, etc. I worry that rather than empowering people with mental illness, a plot that relies too much on that aspect of their lives could further the stigma. I have seen it done right, but also I have seen it done very, very wrong.

        3) Unlike with other types of diversity, not everyone necessarily wants to read an accurate portrayal of mental illness, and that's because it can be incredibly triggering. For anyone who has experienced depression, body dysmorphia, or has self-harmed as a result of these or another form of mental illness, reading about a character who is going through it and doing the same things can be detrimental to their own mental health. Even talking to people about their depressive episodes drags me back three steps, it has never been helpful or comforting for me to hear what someone else has been through, it just reminds me of how it feels. Again, this relates back to my first point in that different people have different reactions, coping mechanisms, and triggers. I'm not saying we shouldn't write stories with/about mental illness, we just need to recognize exactly how delicate the topic is, and the various ways people will react to it.
        Last edited by EpisodeMichelle; 03-12-2017, 06:38 PM.


        • #8
          This is going to be me speaking from my own experiences. I have depression and it's the long-term kind that has lasted for, well, years. That doesn't mean I am an authority on the subject, of course, but here is what I think:

          - I personally feel that interactive stories (like Episode, visual novels, etc.) are an unique medium that could be good for writing stories about mental illness. If a story's truly written to be interactive, the reader is already encouraged by the particularities of the medium itself to identify with the protagonist. You are part of the plot, because you are making choices and having a hand in how the story ends.

          Fiction is a good resource for spreading empathy.

          - As others are pointing out, a big problem here is that too often mental illnesses are poorly or inaccurately written. When inaccurate stories become popular, they contribute negatively to the ongoing narrative regarding mental illness, which is clearly still a major issue. (Lookin' at you, Split.) But I think a really important first step is just having that mindset of compassion and respect.

          If you're wanting to do right by people when writing stories about mental illnesses, then you need to put in some effort. You don't have to be so terrified of messing up that you never publish your story - none of us popped out of the womb understanding social justice - but you need to care. Just... don't take your responsibility as a writer and a storyteller lightly. You have more power than you may know.

          And please, please, don't use us for the purpose of trying to tack on more drama.

          - Like EpisodeMichelle is saying, everyone has their own individual symptoms or ways their personality interacts with their illness.

          For example: I have depression... but I still get mostly A's in school. Because I can memorize quickly + will literally stay up all night if that's what it takes, I manage to get good grades. So my underlying personality trait of determination and my intense need for academic validation interact with my depression and produce... that. And yet, I still have depression. I still don't have a lot of emotional or mental energy. It's all still there.

          Point of the story is: you can't expect to write a realistic, well-rounded character with mental illness if you're doing a cursory glance at WebMD, checking off symptoms, and calling it a day.

          - On that note, would I read stories where the plot is focused on my particular mental illness? Probably not. I have depression literally every day of my life; I don't really want to read a story all about dealing with depression, no offense. But if someone doesn't understand what it feels like to have my life and they're open to learning about it? Again, I feel like a well-written story about depression for that kind of reader could be helpful.

          - So what stories would I like to read about people with mental illness or at least my kind... depression? Ones where they are part of the plot and loved by other characters, where they're not seen as a burden or a drag (or in the case of something like bipolar disorder, dangerous) because of their mental illness. Where we get to exist in fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc. not just in drama.

          - My last bit of advice is this: develop the character's personality first and then figure out how their mental illness interacts with their personality afterwards. Decide whether there was a physical or emotional cause. Don't write a personality based off symptoms.

          Sorry this was so long, but if you made it to the end, then my thanks and congrats lol. Also, I hope this was clear but in case it was not: my usage of "you" in this post is just a general you, not directed at anyone in particular.
          Last edited by writingspirit; 03-12-2017, 09:44 PM.


          • #9
            I have ADHD, depression, and my parents say I am anti-social.
            I think it fine to write a metal illness story. I don't think of them as mental illnesses really. I don't have that much of depression any more but, I still have it. I have wrote in one of my chapter's that my character was going to kill herself but, then someone stopped her from killing herself.
            But, I recommend not encouraging people to kill them-self.
            If you have any questions about ADHD, depression, or being anti-social I will answer them!
            Last edited by samrover18; 03-13-2017, 08:14 AM.


            • Lum
              Lum commented
              Editing a comment
              Being antisocial is not being asocial or introverted, though. Antisocial has a much more deep and different meaning that the one people give it in daily conversations.

            • samrover18
              samrover18 commented
              Editing a comment
              Lum I know. I still talk to people on episode just not any other people. Just not a sociable person.
              Last edited by samrover18; 04-06-2017, 10:13 AM.

          • #10
            **(This ended up much longer than I had originally intended, I do apologise.)**

            I'm not sure how helpful my response will be, but since I do suffer from a couple of mental illnesses, I thought I could put my two cents in. I went through a prolonged traumatic experience as a child, and currently suffer from Depression, Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, obsessive compulsive behaviours, and post-traumatic stress. I am not an expert on the subject, but here are some tips that I have:

            - Please do not write a story featuring mental illness for the sake of writing a diverse story, or because you need your character to have a flaw, or even just because you think mental illnesses are 'cool'. Mental illnesses do not make someone 'special' or 'different', they're still human. Unless you have a dedicated interest in mental illnesses, and are willing to do thorough research and possibly even collect first-hand accounts; your story is likely going to be mis-representative at least, offensively damaging at most - even if you in no way intend it to be.

            - Romanticisation of mental illness is a serious problem, please don't contribute to it. Don't make your character have depression or PTSD so that they are 'damaged' or 'mysterious'. It's offensive. Mental illness sucks, and it doesn't make people any more attractive (for the most part). The misrepresentation of it in literature is kind of weird, honestly.

            - Depression is not just 'sadness'. With depression, you can go from ecstatic to depressed in seconds to minutes; you can feel completely numb; you can always feel entirely too much; or you can be all three and more. Depression (along with all mental illnesses) is an immensely complicated illness, that has not one single definition. Additionally, depressed people can have interests and friends! They can be excited about things, too! Too often I see depressed people depicted as being sad and reclusive all the time, but this isn't the case; these characters may have an anti-social disorder, or may even just not enjoy social situations.

            - Anxiety is not just 'being worried'. And no, I'm not "lucky" because I don't have to do presentations in class. (On that note: try not to tell people that they're "lucky" for anything related to a mental illness. It can be really upsetting when people make these comments, even if they're in good nature). Anxiety is an absolutely awful illness. Imagine feeling sick as soon as you wake up because you know you'll have to leave the house at some point. Imagine feeling debilitatingly nauseous everyday leading up to a simple gathering with friends. Imagine dreading going out with friends (yes, best friends) so much that you cancel an outing, and then cry the whole day because you feel like your friends don't want to see you. Imagine being so utterly terrified of being alone in public that you literally cry when someone looks at you even a little strangely. Imagine having sweaty palms literally every minute that you are awake. That, my friends, is just a little slice of anxiety. So if you're writing about someone with anxiety, please don't just make them scared of anything and everything. Research the types of anxiety; make sure that you understand the different types and symptoms; and make sure that you represent the anxiety properly, with the depth that it requires.

            - Expanding on the anxiety, I have two types: Social Anxiety and Generalised Anxiety. My social anxiety inhibits how I act and react to social situations; however my generalised anxiety causes problems like not being able to swim in the ocean; not being able to sleep without checking the entire house; and not being able to sleep in the dark. Please research the different types of anxiety before writing an anxious character!

            - Self-harm is not some teenager's attention-seeking fad.
            It is not something you can just throw into a story for dramatic effect, or to make someone seem "emo". I never thought that I would self-harm; I honestly had always thought it was just some emo thing - because I was misinformed. But self-harm is actually quite a common thing. While many people do start self-harm as a teenager, and possibly continue into adulthood; many people can actually start self-harming as adults. It is a very complicated thing. You regret it as soon as you've finished it; and you feel like crying when you tell your friends, because you know that you've hurt them as well. Additionally: self-harm is very addictive. After a while, you have to do it because it's the only thing that'll make you feel better. And you cannot even begin to understand it until you're crying because of what's happening to you, and then you're crying because you can't find something to cut with, and then you're crying because you just feel like a failure. I do not recommend writing self-harm into stories unless you've experienced it. At all. Don't do it. It'll be mis-representative.

            - If you have characters saying something like "think of your family" to self-harmers or suicidal people etc., please include a disclaimer that clarifies that you do not support this dialogue. Telling someone who is suicidal or self-harming to "think of how it'll affect others" is immensely selfish, and most of the time, they are only thinking of their loved ones.

            - Mental illness is a part of your life, it isn't your life. Just because you have a mental illness, doesn't mean your every day revolves around that illness. A story shouldn't be "about" a mental illness, the mental illness should just be a part of the story.

            - Unless you can replace "meds" or "pills" with a specific medication name - don't include medications in your story. Don't just have your character taking their 'meds' every day - do the research, and if you don't understand what the medication does and what symptoms it treats, don't include it.

            - MENTAL ILLNESS CAN NOT BE CURED. Another (surprisingly common) misconception is that mental illnesses "go away" after treatment. No. Mental illnesses are incurable - which means they never go away. When mental illnesses are 'treated', the SYMPTOMS are what are treated; however if you stop taking medication, experience a traumatic event, change medications, etc. your symptoms can/will return. Even anorexia/body dysmorphia can not be cured, the symptoms are simply treated.

            - If you have questions - ASK THEM! Yes, while some people may not feel comfortable with talking about their condition/s, as long as you are respectful, a lot of people are more than willing to educate people and answer questions!

            TL;DR The bottom line is: mental illness is just a part of people's lives, just like how your personality is a part of yours. It shouldn't be the focal point of your story, and it shouldn't be something you include just to "add diversity". It may not seem like it, but understanding; empathy; and research are essential if you are writing about mental illness. If you are not willing to put in the effort required to make your story accurate, don't bother writing it.
            Last edited by Eluza; 05-16-2017, 03:21 AM.


            • Brenna Nelson
              Brenna Nelson commented
              Editing a comment
              I love your icon! And thank you for your post!

            • Fate
              Fate commented
              Editing a comment
              I think this post is really helpful and I really loved your comment about the fact that people shouldn't write about mental illnesses just for diversity, I think it's something people don't often realize.

          • #11
            I promised that I would delete this post in an hour to avoid spoiling my story so I am. Private message me if you saw the post and have feedback, want to know what it said, or DM on Instagram to do either @revelations_episode
            Last edited by Brenna Nelson; 03-13-2017, 06:59 PM.


            • #12
              Hi everyone, I know this post is probably old and dead, but if you are looking for tips on writing mentally ill people then I just want to say that I am always willing to hand out some pointers! I don't usually tell people this because it always makes people act different around me (unsurprisingly, haha), but I am a high fucntioning schizophrenic (high functioning is a term used to describe how a mental illnesses would affect a person's ability to function in society, high functioning being able to work, learn, and live in society albeit a few difficulties. Low functioning is requiring someone to look after you because you are unable to do many things)

              I also have ADHD, which has a lot of symtoms that overlap with schizophrenia.

              I am not self diagnosed.

              My mom has BPD (borderline personality disorder)

              if you need help writing about any of these mental illnesses, feel free to send me a PM.


              • bolt2k
                bolt2k commented
                Editing a comment
                (P.s, if you're wondering what meds I take, I take chlorpromazine and fluphenazine. There is also a drug used to treat schizophrenia called Clozapine, which is known as a drug of last resort because the side affects can kill you. Just in case you are writing a character with schizophrenia, you shouldn't make them take clozapine and have them also be high functioning.) also sorry for the info dump haha

            • #13
              I have AD. (not ADHD, but asperger syndrome. A type of autism) I can be very anti-social, and I've never been the best when it comes to speaking. I shake my hands, and staying still is basically impossible for me. But hey, I'm not ashamed of it . I can't be since I'd be with it for the rest of my life. I love how there's stories where the characters with mental illness aren't adnormal and how they can live life as normal people. Especially stories with autistic characters.


              • #14
                I'm glad there's life in this topic again, since it's an important one in my opinion.

                I have been diagnosed with several mental illnesses and that makes me unsure whether or not to include them into my story. That's because I'm not sure whether a person without a disorder would react the way I describe in my story. Get it?

                I also want to point out that IF you want to write about mental illness, don't make it your focal point. Even if it's a big part of your story as in certain character development: make it subtle! Don't throw it in your reader's faces. A beautiful example IMO is The Perks of Being a Teenage Wallflower, which is a coming-of-age story in which a mental illness is added beneath the surface. There are some hints here and there which leave us wondering what's going on. Only at the very end of the movie, we see what it was, after it has triggered our curiosity (which is far better to trigger regarding mental illnesses instead of disgust/misunderstanding/pity (ugh)/anger/you name it) and we are much more understanding and touched. Yes, the movie does make me cry every time I see it, but it doesn't make me feel bad or sad, because it's so SUBTLE.

                That subtlety also makes me doubt adding a mental illness to my story, because it's so damn hard to add that subtlety!

                Another note I want to add for writers who think about adding this subject matter to their story: mental illness itself is very complex and possibly subtle. It took me 9 years filled with a variety of psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists and therapies to finally get a proper diagnosis. Those years were also filled with therapy 'gaps' in which I thought (and made my therapists/doctors believe) that nothing's 'wrong' with me (I put wrong in between quotation marks because of the negative sound to that word :/ ). Once again: subtlety is key.


                • #15
                  A thing I usually tell myself:
                  ”I do not have a psychopathic character, I have a character who is a psychopath.” Their illness does NOT define them.. I am not an anxious person, I am a person with anxiety.