May is Mental Health Awareness Month (also referred to as National Mental Health Month) in the United States. In accordance, it is also Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, having started on the 8th, so May is all about mental health right now. Similar to what I’ve been doing on Instagram, I would like to take the opportunity to dedicate a post on our blog to the mental health representation in YA literature, its importance, and its insufficiencies. Mental health (MH) being an important topic to both Chantal and me, we continue to seek accurate representations in various forms; be it the impact of grief, like in Everything I Never Told You, or the reality of suffering from a psychiatric disorder, like in Made You Up which features paranoid schizophrenia.
Why mental health? I think we can all agree that the depiction of diversity is important in terms of accuracy, as in what reality looks like for people, and relatability. The latter heavily influences both Chantal’s and my enjoyment of a book, regardless of genre or target audience. The more we relate, the more we identify ourselves with characters’ personalities or their struggles, the higher the impact becomes; impact meaning the ability to make us ponder over the issues covered in the book. And so, diversity has become somewhat of a hype among book-related trends. Readers advocate for it. Authors implement it. I often see factors such as gender, skin colour, sexuality, and religion featured when other readers and bloggers talk about diversity, but to my astonishment, I only rarely see MH included in the bunch. Sure, people do advocate for MH rep in literature, but the connection to diversity is not one I have often seen done. MH––including its various illnesses––are a vital part of a diverse and accurate representation of our daily lives. Hence, it should be included when promoting diversity. Not only do I seek more MH rep in books, but I’d also like to have it broadened to other elements of diversity. For example, most books I’ve read featuring MH focused on white characters. Why not mix it up a bit? Why not depict a POC with a mental illness? Why not depict a Jewish or a Muslim character with a mental illness? The more diverse the depiction becomes, combining several diverse elements such as race, sexuality, and MH, the more challenging it becomes, sure. However, it also brings us closer to a reality lived by so many people.
Why Young Adult literature? As hinted at in the post’s title, I’d like to zoom in on the importance of a good MH rep in YA literature, though it is, of course, just as relevant for adult novels. My interest in YA literature specifically is not only due to my own preference of the genre, though I do enjoy adult novels a lot, but is also sparked by my pursuing a career as a child and adolescent psychologist. Now, most of us will have experienced adolescence as a time of struggle and turmoil. I can’t recall how many times I sought comfort in a book that spoke to me due to its representation of issues I could relate to or even dealt with at the time. To give you an example, having been affected by parental depression as a teenager, I related so much to Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca, which focuses on a girl whose mother falls ill with depression. It gave me hope, too. Furthermore, adolescence is a time in which many mental illnesses have its onset. So, YA literature is important because adolescents might wish to seek comfort and feel understood, which books can enable, and MH rep in YA novels is important due to its increased prevalence––and therefore relevance––among the target audience. It does not only provide a base for identification, however, but also for spreading awareness among teens and young adults, which can improve understanding and support for impacted people by their respective peers.
This brings us to the importance of accuracy, because MH rep in a YA novel does not necessarily mean it is well done. A lot of harm can be done with bad MH rep. Not only will readers feel less represented and understood, or perhaps even offended and ashamed, but it also spreads inaccurate depictions and false information to people unfamiliar with the issue. We need to be cautious with what we call inaccurate MH rep, because having someone say a depiction is not conformable with their own experience does not mean it’s not accurate and relatable to someone else with the same mental illness. What can be noted, though, is that some universal aspects must be given as a foundation for any good MH rep. To give a negative example which goes against everything we know about MH: The love-as-a-cure trope used to fabricate happy endings is inexcusable. First off, far from every person out there gets a happy ending, so why should all the fictional ones? Secondly, it trivializes severe conditions as something benign when they often require years of personal effort, social support, and intense therapy to be either stabilised or overcome. Yes, having a loving and supportive partner at your side does help, but it’s far from rainbows and unicorns. A further example of how MH rep can become harmful is when characters’ dysfunctional behaviours with regard to their mental illness are not pointed out as such and relativised. Depicting dysfunctionality, such as self-harm as a coping strategy or resistance against therapy, is part of the game, but since books function as a paragon to some extent, authors should also make clear how dysfunctional behaviours negatively impact a character’s wellbeing. Books should not become a justification for dysfunctional behaviours in real life. Rather, I wish for YA novels (and adult ones, too) to induce encouragement, to send positive yet realistic messages with regard to dealing with mental illnesses and other struggles related to MH. By doing so, literature can provide sources of support to those who need it, sources of information for those who want it, and spread awareness for all.
To top off this post, I’d love to give you some recommendations for novels with a MH rep that convinced me. This doesn’t necessarily mean all these recs are some of my favourites, but that the MH aspect was well done from my point of view. I swear, I’m not biased towards authors with Italian names, but these women just write great mental health fiction.
❀ Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta | YA : I’ve already mentioned the special role this book took up in my life. This beautifully written novel is a realistic take on what it’s like to live with a mentally ill parent. In a very sensitive, yet at times humorous manner, Marchetta depicts how maternal depression changes family dynamics while introducing topics such as tranferring to a new school, making new friends, and falling in love as well. Saving Francesca puts the spotlight on mental illness, coming of age, and stepping out of our comfort zones.
❀ (On The) Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta | YA: There is no author who captures struggles of youth, including mental health, as well as Marchetta does. She is my queen. Though Jellice Road is a less obvious MH book, it tackles a lot of serious issues like teenage depression, domestic violence, and maternal drug abuse. The two novels by Marchetta have a similar feel overall, though Jellicoe Road has the added bonus of a mystery unravelled through past documents.
❀ Made You Up by Francesca Zappia | YA: This debut novel offers a wonderful take on a high school experience with a mental illness. Due to the main character’s paranoid schizophrenia and the resulting visual hallucinations, the reader deals with an unreliable narrator, which made this reading experience all the more unique. The story packs a punch and also deals with domestic violence. In addition, not that it’s of importance to the quality of the book, but its watercolour cover is a piece of art.
❀ The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati | YA: This debut author chose a bold topic for her first novel but she handled it extremely well. The Weight of Zero follows the story of Cath who suffers from bipolar disorder, which means she sways between episodes of mania and depression. The book toaches upon subjects such as as living with a chronic mental illness and grim expectations for the future, and it also shows how Cath’s disorder impacts her life. Fortunati had clearly done her fair share of research and managed to write an authentic, introspective novel on a very complex illness. Due to bringing group therapy into play, this book includes many other disorders and struggles, as well as the image of mental health in society and the struggles of the parents.
❀ Still Alice by Lisa Genova | Adult: Hands down one of my favourite books on mental health ever. Since Genova is a trained neuroscientist, Still Alice is a novel wonderfully balanced between fiction and science. She breaks down hardcore neuroscience to a comfortable and understandable level. Genova didn’t shy away from the challenge of telling the story from the perspective of a person whose memory slowly deteriorates with the progress of the early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This book is a sad one, a touching one, but it holds the most beautiful message. At the end of the book, I felt my eyes blur with tears but my lips stretching into a smile.
❀ Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson | YA: I was very young when I read Wintergirls and I remember it being one of the first times I went “oh shit” whilst reading a YA contemporary. Having suffered from disordered eating herself, Anderson paints a pretty accurate picture of two girls wandering into anorexic territory – there is a lot of self-shaming, finding pride in being thin, counting calories, weighing, and so on. The message is very positive but the general storyline is dark as it takes you for a stroll into the pits of anorexia. If you, dear reader, have suffered or are currently suffering from disordered eating, I’d advise you to approach this book with caution, as its content can be potentially triggering.
I really hope you’ve found this post both entertaining and that it has given you food for thought or discussion. Please come share and discuss your similar or divergent views on the topic of mental health rep in YA with both Chantal and me. Moreover, we’d love to know if you have any recommendations for good mental health rep in either Young Adult or Adult novels 🙂