Real Talk: Mental Health in YA8:00:00 AM
About a month ago I did a blog post that I titled Real Talk, and in it I spoke about college and my application process and gave my input and advice on the topic of deciding a major, or even whether or not to go to college. My dear friend Alex over at Fiery Reads is the queen of discussion posts, and after some chit chat one night last week she suggested I start doing them too. If you haven't read any of Alex's discussions, you really should check them out because they are just so spot-on. And I promise this isn't some plug to check out her blog just because she's my friend, I genuinely think she writes and speaks about some of the most important discussion topics out there. My personal favorite is this one.
But that's enough of a long-winded intro, I know why you're all here. I decided to do my first (second??) discussion post on a topic that matters very much to me: mental health. Specifically, mental health and its involvement in the YA scene.
Mental health has been a prominent part of my life, for nearly my entire life. I try to be as vocal about it as possible without sounding too preachy, because I firsthand know how it can affect people and know that it is something that more people struggle with than a lot of people realize. Wow, I said the word “people” a lot in that last sentence. Mental health in America has had quite a rocky history. In the grand scope of things, medical history never really started to document and treat cases of mental illness in patients until the mid-1800’s. And even then, the methods doctors used to treat mental illness were highly unorthodox and dangerous; let alone related in no way, shape, or form to the root of the illness. I took a course on general psychology last semester and it opened my eyes to the history of mental healthcare. Up until the late 60’s and early 70s, mental health was treated as a disease of the mind, something that tainted the patient and was often spurred by highly religious or conservative beliefs. It took doctors a very long time to realize that mental health was not an anomaly of the mind being imperfect or diseased like an infected wound; rather, mental health all boils down to nothing more than chemicals and hormones.
Now that I’ve bored you with a mini history lesson, I want to advocate as to why mental health needs to have a more prominent standing in the YA market. See, I have this thing called general anxiety disorder. It’s an imbalance of the chemical (a neurotransmitter, specifically) in my brain called serotonin, a chemical responsible for transmitting signals between nerves in my brain; specifically signals that dictate mood and stress. It’s because my levels of this chemical aren’t average that I have this disorder and as a result, I overthink, I overreact, I stress out over little things, I catastrophize mistakes I make, and paired with my panic disorder it can also lead to a whole lot of panic attacks and the occasional anxiety attack. Before I go any further in this discussion, here’s something you need to understand: I don’t advocate about my mental disorders because I am out to get pity or sympathy. I never have, and I never will. The reason I am so open about my disorders is because I want to bring awareness to mental disorders in general and get people to realize that they all know at least one person, if not more, who has one.
And it is exactly that reason why the YA scene needs more characters and stories involving mental disorders. So many people in this world take the words “mental illness” to mean something negative, to mean you’re crazy. Having a mental disorder does not mean you are crazy. Having a mental disorder does not mean you are crazy. Having a mental disorder does not mean you are crazy. And it’s just become the common assumption made about people who are depressed, people with OCD, people with schizophrenia. On the other hand, just because you're a perfectionist doesn't mean you're OCD. Just because you're sad doesn't mean you've got depression. Just because you're freaking out over a test in class doesn't mean you're about to have a panic attack. Mental disorders are not adjectives for you to toss around; normalization does not mean that you're allowed to use them to describe yourself in a situation that trivializes what those who actually have disorders go through on a day to day basis. Like I mentioned before, it all comes down to chemicals in your brain. Some people have more, some people have less, some people have a balanced amount. Some people have brown eyes and blonde hair. Some people have dark skin. Some people are tall. It’s all on the same level, it’s biology and how we as humans were made. And at the end of the day, the main thing I want people reading this discussion to take away from my post is that if you have a mental illness and are struggling with it, you’re perfectly normal and it’s going to be okay. I can’t think of a better way to communicate that to kids my age than through books; especially within the bookish community, I know SO many people who advocate for more diversity in books.
People don’t realize that having a mental disorder is just like breaking your arm or getting the flu. Some are more chronic diseases than others, some are seasonal, and some happen once and then never or rarely again. But because it is regarded as something mental, it’s human nature to want to overcome it on our own, believing it’s all a case of mind over matter. Mental health days are just as valid as sick days. As a society, we have been conditioned to believe that the crazy people are the ones to be avoided. That they are abnormal, not right in the head, that they’re all twisted in some way or another and likely fantasize about death a lot or other morbid or perverted things. It is this very stigma that has been built around mental disorders that lead people to avoid talking about them, to avoid asking for help, and to avoid those who are known to have them. And it is this very reason that mental disorders must be normalized.
One of the best possible ways to normalize a stigma is through representation. The presence alone of a character or figure who outright has a mental disorder is enough to change someone’s perspective. If it can change one reader’s perspective, then maybe it can change a hundred. And then maybe those hundred people will all tell someone and suddenly there’s ten thousand people who are aware now. And the cycle of awareness just keeps spreading until, suddenly, that thing we once thought was super bad and must be avoided at all costs is now completely acceptable and regarded as nothing to be ashamed of. Of course there will always be those who aren’t so easily swayed, but it all boils down to that one voice to advocate for someone or something that changed the minds of a hundred people. It’s like the argument for more representation and diversity in YA; representation is SO vital. If you can’t see yourself within a character, if you can’t relate to a character, if you can’t have a character to look up to, whom you identify with, then you will only learn to apply this ignorance of character to your life. If there is no presence you can relate to in popular media, where do you fit it into the world? You would be surprised by the effects the media can have on a person, regardless of how immune one may think they are to it. This all will lead into my next discussion about diversity in YA, but that’s a Real Talk for another day.
Mental illness, disorders, and mental health are all some of the most common medical anomalies out there. I guarantee you that you know at least one person in your life who may have one; and that is perfectly normal. Seeing yourself in a book or any other media outlet is so vital to who you are as a person, because so many of us out there relate so deeply to these stories and connect our lives to them, that if we cannot find ourselves within our favorite books then we are truly lost. Readers deserve more representation. Writers need to band together to write more YA involving mental health. They don’t need to make it a focus of the story, just include a character or two who may have them; and that alone is enough. Bonus points if it’s the MC. In the end, we are one step closer to normalizing mental illness by getting someone to understand what it is, how it affects people, and how it's perfectly okay.
Because if many of us so often find ourselves as people within our favorite books, between paper characters and lettered landscapes, why can’t we take one more step toward making that a possibility for everyone?
Recommendations for Books with Mental Health in YA
- the Mara Dyer trilogy by Michelle Hodkin - These books perfectly described what it feels like to not know what's going on inside your own head, not know how or who to ask for help, and how the therapy and counseling process involved in treatment of mental health disorders can sometimes just be arduous and frustrating. I always tell people that the character I've ever related the most to is Mara, and that's because of what she goes through with her mental health. That's why these books will always mean so much to me.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky - While the main character Charlie was never outright said to have a mental disorder, it is very clear by the way he narrates and the events he describes that he has a disorder. He experienced a big trauma before the start of the book and as he enters high school lost and friendless, a group of seniors take him under their wing and Charlie explores what it really is to be a teenager while ruminating on the deeper levels of it all. Truly a beautiful book and one of my all-time favorites.
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher - This book deals with extremely heavy subjects as the main character details all thirteen reasons why she decided to commit suicide on tape recordings before mailing the tapes off to each person who was a reason why. At the same time, it deals with depression and suicide in a poignant and palpable way. It truly makes the reader understand on a deeper level what someone could be going through at any time while the rest of the world is completely oblivious.
- More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera - This book is on my 2016 TBR list. It tells the story of a boy whose emotional struggles run deep as his life is tossed upside down in a matter of time with the suicide of his father, his newly estranged mother, and his newfound feelings for a new boy in town. When given the opportunity to erase his memories, Aaron is faced with a difficult choice over whether to proceed, even if it means losing sight of who he truly is in the process. I have no doubt this book will chalk up to the high expectations it has been given.
- All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven - Finch fantasizes constantly about death and ways to kill himself, and Violet can't stop anxiously counting down the days until she can get away from the grief of her sister's death. I've heard nothing but good things abot how brilliant and moving this book is, and from what I can tell it deals with depression and grief and anxiety in very real and relatable ways that will change the reader's perspective on the process of grief and depression.