Mental illness is one of the most pressing health concerns of the modern age. Even a cursory internet search will reveal some truly horrifying statistics, especially in the western world where health outcomes have historically been superior. Studies over the last decade have shown nearly 50% of Australians (aged 16-85) experience mental illness at some time in their life, almost 1 in 7 children and adolescents (aged 4-17) are diagnosed with a mental disorder, and suicide is the leading cause of death in young Australians (aged 15-24).
For the longest time, talking about mental illness and suicide has been something of a taboo, especially in the presence of children and young adults. However, since it wasn’t so long ago I was a teenager myself, I am very aware of the fact that today’s youth don’t take well to having the curtains drawn over their eyes. They’re curious about all sorts of things, and if their parents and teachers aren’t willing or able to give them the answers they seek, they’ll hop straight online and search them out themselves.
It’s therefore time to open up the dialogue on mental illness, and I believe YA literature has a role to play. Books can be an excellent medium through which to explore diverse and sometimes serious issues—but only when it’s done in an honest, educated, and responsible way.
FOR WRITERS: How to tackle mental illness
If you’re writing a YA book, or thinking about writing one, that has a character(s) grappling with mental illness of some variety, good on you! YA novels are a great way to raise awareness and kick-start the conversation on this important issue. But I believe writers also have a responsibility when exploring mental illness: a responsibility to depict it in a realistic and non-glorified way.
Based on the books and articles I’ve read on this subject, and my own (somewhat limited) writing experience, the following list details some of the important things writers must consider when writing about mental illness:
- Research: Always do your research, especially if you have no prior knowledge or experience of the particular issue yourself. If you’ve never even heard of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)…maybe you should look it up.
- Symptoms: Get the symptoms right. The DSM will help with this. But also remember that everyone experiences mental illness differently, and diagnostic criteria shouldn’t be used like a grocery list, where you check each one off once it’s been included.
- Characters: Be careful not to make a mental illness the defining trait or feature of a character. It can be a fine line, especially when it comes to characters with more severe conditions, but remember that they are still PEOPLE!
- Plot: This goes hand-in-hand with the above point. Don’t make dealing or overcoming mental illness the only plot device in your novel. Sure, it can be the main plot if you’d like, but the story will be pretty one-dimensional (a.k.a. boring) if nothing else is going on.
- Treatment: Most YA books I’ve read that deal with mental illness overwhelmingly explore the symptoms and impacts of the condition, with little to no emphasis on getting help or receiving treatment. So please consider this—it’s important too!
- Recovery: Nothing pisses me off more than when love etc. magically “cures” a character of mental illness. No. Just no. One of the most devastating things about mental illness is that there is no easy solution, despite the love and support the individual may have. Be realistic about your character’s recovery, or lack thereof. Don’t pay it off.
FOR READERS: YA books that explore mental illness
A mood disorder is a condition that disturbs a person’s mood to the point where it impacts their ability to function day-to-day. The most common examples include major depressive disorder (MDD) or depression, characterised by a persistent and pervasive low mood, and bipolar disorder, where moods cycle between mania and depression.
An anxiety disorder is a condition characterised by persistent, excessive worry about future events and/or fear about current events. Commonly mentioned types include generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, and selective mutism. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also sometimes considered an anxiety disorder.
Psychosis is a mental condition that results in the distortion of reality due to delusions, hallucinations, and disordered patterns of thought. It can have a number of causes, but the commonly thought-of example is the psychotic disorder schizophrenia, which is characterised by a failure to understand reality.
An eating disorder is a type of mental disorder where an individual has abnormal eating habits that negatively influence their physical and/or mental health. Common types include anorexia nervosa (AN), where people eat very little, bulimia nervosa (BN), where people eat a lot and then purge the food, and binge eating disorder (BEN).
Suicide and self-harm
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one’s own death, whereas self-harm is the deliberate and direct injury of one’s own body tissue without suicidal intent. People experiencing mental illness are at higher risk of suicide and self-harm, using it as a means of managing or escaping overwhelming emotional pain.
*Note: I haven’t read most of the books listed above, so can’t really speak as to whether they give a good representation of mental illness. I have used them purely as examples of the breadth and variety of YA novels currently out there which explore these issues.
What YA books do you think portray mental illness well? What do you consider to be important when it comes to exploring mental illness in YA literature?