Mental Health in YA fiction

Hello and welcome to Infinity Talks!

Infinity Talks is my version of a Discussion Post where I will (try) to tackle a particular subject in YA fiction and hopefully open up a discussion with all you lovely people.

For my first Infinity Talk, I’d like to discuss Mental Health in YA fiction. I thought it would be a good place to start because I’ve seen an increase in YA books that deal with the subject over the past couple of years. I’ve read more than a couple by now and I’d like to discuss what I’ve read so far.

First of all, I’d like to point out how happy I am that mental health is being discussed more openly. And why shouldn’t it? According to research done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness four years ago no less than 20% of teenagers and young adults aged 13 to 18 experience mental disorders. And those are low estimates since a lot of teenagers are reluctant to seek help.

Why? Because there’s still a stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Teenagers and young adults often feel ashamed of their mental health struggles which means it takes longer for them to seek out help (if at all). They feel alone, confused, and scared while they try to cover up and pretend they’re okay.

While YA books that feature characters with a mental illness is by no means a replacement for professional help, they can help teenagers feel less alone. They can give them a better understanding of their illness, which could be the first step in seeking out help.

That’s why it’s so important that YA fiction provides a realistic representation of mental illness.

But what do we mean by realistic?

For me, the key to accurate representation is twofold:

  • Death to all clichés and stereotypes: someone who struggles with depression can have plenty of friends and have fun. Just because you can’t see their pain doesn’t mean it’s not there. Someone who has anxiety can still leave the house or talk to a group of people. The following isn’t relevant to YA fiction (I hope) but I’d still like to point it out. I’ve seen this around on Instagram.

“I just spent half an hour cleaning my room. #OCD”
“I don’t like to mix my M&M’s. OMG, I’m so #OCD”

For the love of God, it’s not an adjective. And you can’t just throw that word around. OCD (or any other mental illness) is not fun or quirky or cute. It’s an illness.

  • Don’t hand out cures or solutions: I can’t tell you how annoyed and angry I get every when the main character “cures” their mental health issue(s) with love. Seriously? Like, no. Kissing a new guy/girl/other and being all lovey-dovey doesn’t “cure” you. A mental illness is something you (mostly likely) carry with you for the rest of your life. Some hot guy/girl/… on a motorcycle isn’t going to change that. (Yes, I’ve read books like this.)

Failing to accurately represent mental illness is disrespectful toward those who actually suffer from it. It diminishes their struggle and their bravery which is completely unacceptable.

*deep breath*

Okay, rant over.

Onto the good stuff. Since mental illness is being discussed more openly there are more books that feature main characters with mental health issues. Some are bad, but, thankfully, there are plenty of authors who get it right too. Here’s my top five and a quote for each so you get an idea:

  1. “I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.” – It’s Kind of a Funny Story

  2. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well. I feel like I’m way down this deep, deep hole and I’m looking up and all there is is this little dot of light and I have to shout at the top of my lungs for anyone to hear me and even when I do, I say the wrong thing or they don’t really listen or they’re just humouring me – The Rest of Us Just Live Here

  3. I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

  4. i think the idea of a ‘mental health day’ is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or another, unless we choose to bring a gun to school or ruin the morning announcements with a suicide – Will Grayson, Will Grayson

  5. I feel like a rock being skipped through the ocean—pain, relief, pain again, relief again, eventually destined to sink – History Is All You Left Me

***
How do you feel about mental health in YA fiction? Which books get it right? Which ones don’t? What are some stereotypes and clichés that annoy you?

Let me know in the comment section.

See you soon,
Lauren

17 thoughts on “Mental Health in YA fiction

  1. I love how The Perks of Being a Wallflower depicts mental illness. It was so well portrayed. While I can’t say I have a mental illness per se, I do deal with anxiety and stress a lot.
    Oh, and my recommendation technically isn’t a YA novel, but it’s an amazing Webtoon (webcomic on the Webtoon site) called Dr. Frost. It deals with a psychologist who solves the “mystery” behind people’s illnesses. Think of House M.D, but psychology. It even deals with teenagers’ mental health a couple of times, most notably in the second arc, The Black Wave. It’s an amazing webcomic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I really liked how The Perks of Being a Wallflower portrayed mental illness. I also think it was the first YA book featuring mental illness that got a lot of buzz (probably because of the movie and the actors in it) which helped other books get published.
      Oh, Dr. Frost sounds really interesting! I love House and psychology so it should be right up my alley. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Like

  2. Oh my gosh. You said this perfectly! I currently don’t have a mental illness (except for sliiiiiiiiiiiiiight OCD, and I mean VERY slight), but I would HATE to see mental illnesses being portrayed in the wrong way in books. I haven’t come across books like that, but it is so mean and rude of those who actually have those mental illnesses and are suffering. Because I don’t have experience with it, I probably would never write about a character with mental illness in fear of portraying it incorrectly (unless I research extensively). And omg I need to read Perks and HIAYLM so bad!

    Like

    • I completely agree. Sometimes I think authors just add mental illness because it’ll make their character different or quirky or whatever, which is so wrong on so many levels. I’m writing a book where the MC suffers from anxiety so I know what you mean about getting wrong. I don’t have GAD but I do have obsessive and irrational thoughts about a particular area of my life so I’m trying to use that “experience” I have on my MC. Also, I’ve done my research so I should be okay.

      Yes! You should read them, especially HIAYLM. It’s so heart-breaking and OCD is portrayed really well. Adam Silvera suffers from OCD too I believe so it’s no surprise he got it exactly right.

      Sorry about the long answer but I’m really passionate about this subject 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a wonderful post – I agree completely. Mental health representation is extremely important in books – not only because people who have disorders can feel not-so-alone if they see it being reflected in books, but accurate, sensitive portrayal can rid otherwise ignorant people of stigmas. And in this climate where mental health is still considered taboo in so many cultures, eradication of stigma is so, so important.

    I’ve read and loved all five of the books you mentioned, especially THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, since it truly holds a lot of meaning for me. It was the first book I read dealing with mental illness, and it was THE book that made me realize that I wanted to go into psychiatry – and here I am, ten years later on the track to med school, haha. Books can be powerful. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more. You bring up a good point by saying books can help rid people of the stigma.
      Perks was the first book I read about mental illness too. I think it was for a lot of people and I’m glad it got so much attention.
      Oh, wow. That’s really interesting how Perks got you into psychiatry. Like you said, it’s proof that books can hold a lot of power and can really affect people’s lives.

      Like

  4. Yes, yes, yes! We need more and more and more books about mental illness – particularly fiction and especially YA fiction! I do have mental illnesses. 5 in fact, with a tendency towards a sixth (it doesn’t interfere with my life enough for it to qualify for a full diagnosis but the tendency is definitely there). It’s so hard to find books that portray any of those illnesses with any sort of accuracy and yet empathy. Even adult fiction sucks at getting it right.

    I loved Perks of being a Wallflower because of how well it portrays mental illness. The author got it right. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is another one I love because of that. I haven’t read the others, but I think they’ll be going on my “to-read” list soon. Thanks for sharing these!

    The only book series I can think to suggest is the Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans. The protagonist has Tourette’s Syndrome, which RP Evans has as well, so it’s really well portrayed and yet isn’t preachy or cramming it down your throat. It’s something that the protagonist lives with and deals with. It’s a good series. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if this is appropriate to say but I’m sorry you have to deal with 5 / 6 mental illnesses. That must be really hard.
      I’m glad you liked Perks and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Yes, you should definitely check out the other books as well. They’re really good (in my opinion of course).
      I’m going to look up the Michael Vey series. I’ve never read a book where the MC has Tourette’s Syndrome so that’ll be interesting. Thanks for suggesting it!

      Liked by 1 person

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