Undergraduate Researcher Begins Writing Fiction Novel to Accurately Portray Mental Illness

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Kate Vriesema ’19 Gains Insight into Recovering From Trauma

An image of Kate Vriesema, a 2018 Summer Scholar, who studied Young Adult Literature and started writing her own novel. She's holding a book and seated at a table in the GWU library.
Kate Vriesema (Photo by Lisa Martinat)

Quiet and shy is how Gardner-Webb University senior, Kate Vriesema, of Whitinsville, Mass., describes herself. Her writing speaks volumes about the topics that interest her. By sharing her ideas on paper, she gives a voice to others who need to be heard, like individuals struggling with mental illness.

As a GWU Summer Undergraduate Research Scholar, Vriesema studied how mental illness is portrayed in Young Adult fiction novels and began writing a novel that accurately depicts teenagers with mental disorders. The English major is one of 13 students who received a grant to spend 40 hours a week for five weeks researching her topic. She will present her work at the GWU Life of the Scholar Multidisciplinary Conference in the spring. Her faculty mentor was Dr. Chris Davis, professor of English.

Her first step was to read numerous Young Adult fiction books and take notes on what the authors did well and how they could have done better. She also read about the psychology of certain mental disorders, like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “In a similar vein, I looked deeply into the benefits and drawbacks of group therapy, which is an important aspect of my novel,” Vriesema shared. “Having never been to therapy before, I needed to learn the best structure for an individual group therapy session and what needed to be accomplished by the end of the group therapy program. The main challenge I faced in my writing was the fact that mental illness manifests differently for everyone and is therefore a hard thing to accurately portray.”

Vriesema appreciated being able to devote her time to writing, because she hopes to become a published author. In addition, conducting the research prepared her to work on her English thesis. “By reading the book, ‘Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror’ by Judith Herman, I was able to form a potential curriculum for group therapy,” she related. “I learned that it’s best to have an overall theme for each session, something that the participants can work towards.”

Davis helped her manage the time she had to work on the project. “He gave me certain word goals and  deadlines to meet,” she explained. “I started the program by trying to write 1,000 words a day, but by the second or third week, I realized that 2,000 words was more of a challenge. By the end of Summer Scholars, I wrote 120 pages of my novel, which far exceeded my goal. I was able to prove to myself that writing is definitely something I could do.”