May means Mental Health Awareness Month!
Which means…I fully intended to blog about it and then waited till the last moment to do so. Procrastination? 😌👌🏻It’s a skill set. I excel. Although if I’m truthful instead of just gently dragging myself — I’ve just been busy this month. Editing. Reading wildly. Wistfully thinking about naps. Being stressed as one does.
But let’s focus up and talk about books!
I’ve been passionate about good mental health rep in YA books for a long, long time. As someone who has their own highs and lows with mental illness, I feel a tug towards characters who deal with the same things and books that lay the stark truths down on the table. I also really, really like to learn more about different neurodiversities and just understand people better.
And I am oh so tired of bad mental health rep. Do you know what that looks like? Stereotypes. Characters with no personality beyond their label. Villains needing an excuse for evil. Characters “cured” after falling in love. Plot twists where it wasn’t an illness at all, they just belonged in a magical world [cue jazz hands]. Horrifying asylums. Characters realising ‘positive thinking’ can cure them.
…I am exhausted writing that list because it’s not even an exaggeration. These happen all the time in YA books. Still. And I do think it often happens out of ignorance — authors don’t think to push past a stereotype or they write a book with no intent to harm, but the research is just shoddy. It’s not an excuse though. Books have to do better because readers deserve better. Mental illnesses aren’t imaginary conditions, so if you’re going to write something you haven’t lived, know what you’re doing.
So today we’re going to talk about…
10 Things I Want To See More of In YA Books About Mental Health
I have been left with cravings here and a void that needs filling! There are so many excellent YA books dealing with mental healths, but…there are also holes. Books DO exist that cover these things. I just want more. So good news — you get to hear my wishlist. 😌
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This is cheating for my list a bit, because what I need is for readers and reveiwers to acknowledge this. So so often (and this hurts my soul) I see people denouncing mental illness rep as “bad” because they don’t relate. “My depression looks nothing like that?!” someone rants in a review. 1-star.
Everyone is entitled to feel what they want about a book and you can hate something all you want. But there needs to be acknowledgement that two depressed people can go through depression differently. Minority rep that isn’t exactly like yours ≠ bad rep.
Especially when there’s other things to consider, like privilege, race, class, co-morbid neurodiveristies, etc. Plus science doesn’t KNOW all there is to know about mental illnesses. There are lists of diagnostic material, but some people don’t fit it neatly and yet still have the mental illness. Humans smh. They are complex creatures.
Look those of us with mental illness didn’t appear with the invention of the iPhone. We have been HERE, dysfunctional and internally screaming, since forever. 🙌🏻 I want to see fantasy books where mental illness plays a bigger role. But accurate and respectfully. Because I’m over the villain being “insane” and there being the “one slow village pig boy” who the hero saves occasionally to prove they are a good person.
I want to see: anxious dragon riders. Bipolar librarians. Knights with OCD. Witches with panic attacks.
Mental illness can be uncontrollable and wild and diminishing. And they’re not rare. So, so many people struggle with them. So let us have adventures too?!
The problem with rep that relies on stereotypes is that it feels ingenuine because it skips the details. Yes, some people with depression can’t get out of bed for days on end. But if that’s ALL the book says about their depression, it comes across lacking depth. You know what else depressed people might struggle with? Executive dysfunction. Memory loss. Weight loss/gain due to medication. Hyper fixations. Insomnia. The list goes on.
I kind of want to see this in books more?? Characters who can’t get organised, forget the random things (haven’t changed clothes in a few days but are studying at a famous school), morose exhaustion, illegible handwriting, who are smothered by the guilt of things they used to be able to do but can’t.
I am very over the “romance cured my depression” dialogue. You can put that in a blender and make a problematic smoothie with it. But sometimes I feel books jumped the other way and made mentally ill characters do it ALL ALONE. You are going to be a strong independent brave little YA character and need no help…
It’s so sad.
Having friends and a supportive family when you have mentally illness can (and I don’t say it lightly) save your life. Being able to talk, rant, lean on someone, be affirmed that you’re not a burden…these are so amazing. I want to read about characters who have tight, close friendships. Who find good friends. Who’ve had them all along. Literally nothing melts my heart faster than characters who are there for each other — no matter what messes their brains make.
I read a book recently that gutted me because one character had a severely depressed younger sister. But the character’s arc? “It’s not your job to fix her!” Um. That is true on a basic level. But leaving your sister to suffer alone is one of the coldest takes I’ve ever read in a book. There’s balance. A mentally ill person isn’t someone else’s sole responsibility. But don’t leave people. And don’t tell teens they’re a burden. Literally can’t underline this enough.
Some mental illness books are “issue books” which means they deal with it and not much else. Which is fine! We need those. (I read How It Feels To Float and it’s about disassociation, specifically, and it was amazing!) But I want to see more books where the mental health rep is there — front and centre and impacting the plot — but also I want to see a plot. Where the finale isn’t a breakdown. Where the character has this complex, full life.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an example I love for this. Darius’ depression is a huge part of the book…but the plot is also about visiting his Persian family and healing his relationship with his dad. Iphigenia Murphy is about a homeless girl searching for her mother, but she also is dealing with intense PTSD.
“You have anxiety? What traumatic experience did you have?” Uhh…maybe your brain is just chemically unbalanced? Maybe it just happened? Mental illness doesn’t always come with One Big Event that triggered it.
I want more of this. This isn’t dissing books where an event lead to a traumatised reaction, brains that struggle to heal, and permanent scars. We need those. But we also need stories about characters who are depressed because they’re genetically predispositioned to it. Where agoraphobia happens after anxiety builds up over years. Eating disorders that come on subtly.
I feel like a lot of people can’t pinpoint the exact moment (or “reason”) their mental illness began. It doesn’t make it any less valid.
Because middle class white straight people aren’t the only ones with mental illnesses. I’ve been reading way more books lately with intersectional identities and it’s making me happy. But more of this!
Like Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now has a black narrator who has OCD and alopecia. In The Wicker King, August is black/biracial with anxiety. The Weight Of Our Sky is about a Malaysian with OCD. Moss, from Anger Is A Gift, is black, gay and anxious. Radio Silence has an anxious, queer, black narrator with queer mentally ill secondary characters too!
I also quietly seethe when people say “woah isn’t that a bit much diversity?” NO. People like this exist. I preferably like to read #ownvoices books when its representing several identities, but these kind of books aren’t just here “for the cookies” (what does that even mean?!).
Some people are against being labelled and I can respect that. Each to their own. But I believe it’s empowering to have language to describe yourself. Instead of internally crying, “I’m crazy I’m crazy” — you can have the language to say “no I have a panic disorder”.
I read a lot of books where it’s not explicitly stated what the character is dealing with. This leaves me feeling like…either (1) the book is anti-labelling, or (2) it doesn’t want to explicitly say so it can deny later in case the rep was bad. Then the an author can pull the “actually I never said they had bipolar” card and deny bad rep.
Sometimes the characters just doesn’t know themselves, which is fine!! Figuring out what’s going on with yourself is not easy!! But there are a lot of times when good rep could be given exact labels and actually raise awareness for what it’s truly like. You can’t walk away from a book feeling like you understand personality disordesr better if the book DIDN’T SAY that’s what it’s about. I always felt Turtles All The Way Down was an INCREDIBLE #ownvoices narrative of OCD. But the actual term “OCD” was never never used on page, just in John Green’s interviews. This chaffs at me because a teen could read this, relate, and still walk away having no idea how to get more information about themselves.
Use ur words.
This is probably an obvious and a given, but I just…!! Want to loudly say we need these stories. I also feel so hard for authors who do bare their souls on page and write about their experiences. It isn’t easy to have your personal life ripped apart by readers, your vulnerable moments offered up for critique and analysation. I’ve written something personal and true to my life only to have a reviewer call it “unrealistic”. It’s hard.
Kind of think #ownvoices authors are badass.
I say this without diminish books where the endings are devastating too — because as hard as it is to have a story end in death or irreversible damage, those stories are still important. You can’t just say something is too ugly, too painful, and shouldn’t be talked about. That’s HOW we get stuck in a cycle of mentally ill people hurting themselves. It’s not always written for shock value.
THAT saying…gah, but I love a story layered with hope amongst the pain and ashes. It makes my heart swell with so much happiness. I can’t even describe. There is so so much room for YA books where characters with mental illness don’t get cured but do get a goodly-ever-after.
tell me what you’d like to see more of in YA books about mental health? and what books have your favourite rep!!