Exploring mental illness in YA literature


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

Mood disorders

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.

EXAMPLES: Definitions of Indefinable Things by Whitney Taylor | Vivaldi in the Dark by Matthew J. Metzger | All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven | When We Collided by Emery Lord

Anxiety disorders

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 disordersocial anxiety disorderagoraphobiapanic disorder, and selective mutismObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also sometimes considered an anxiety disorder.

EXAMPLES: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell | Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley | Sound of Silence by Mia Kerick & Raine O’Tierney | Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone


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.

EXAMPLES: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman | Made You Up by Francesca Zappia | A World Without You by Beth Revis | Mosquitoland by David Arnold

Eating disorders

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).

EXAMPLES: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson | Paperweight by Meg Hatson | A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger | Big Fat Disaster by Beth Fehlbaum

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.

EXAMPLES: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga | Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford | Cut by Patricia McCormick | Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

*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?

RA_logo _backdrop-01_miniRebecca Alasdair

  One thought on “Exploring mental illness in YA literature

  1. 19/04/2018 at 12:10 AM

    I think this would be a great subject for a story. I’m trying to think if I ever read a YA that deal with these issues and I can’t come up with one.
    You’re right about the love thing. That pisses me off – no matter what it’s supposed to cure. It doesn’t work that way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 19/04/2018 at 12:30 AM

      It seems to be a *relatively* recent theme in YA literature. Some representations are better than others, but it’s great to see more and more getting their messages out there!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 19/04/2018 at 1:50 PM

    Excellent blog post, Rebecca. I think books are a great way of reaching young people in distress, showing them they’re not alone, and giving them hope. Big responsibility for writers too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 19/04/2018 at 2:24 PM

      Thank you 😊 Not only do books reach young people in distress, as you say, but if done well they can help those who have not experienced mental illness better understand those who do!

      Liked by 1 person

      • 19/04/2018 at 4:06 PM

        So true! We have a huge problem with teen suicides in Northland and it’s been kept so hush-hush when what we need is more understanding and support instead. And being able to recognise the signs in others is so important. Terribly sad 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  3. 19/04/2018 at 1:54 PM

    Reblogged this on Jo Danilo and commented:
    Here’s an important post by Rebecca Alasdair. Well worth a read and a share. I’m off to check out the books she’s mentioned 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 19/04/2018 at 3:12 PM

    When I was a teen, I filled a lot of notebooks with stories about mental health. They were for my eyes only. I don’t know if I’d ever feel confident sharing stories on such a sensitive subject in case I didn’t handle it right. You are dead right about anyone approaching this in their novels needs to do their research.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 19/04/2018 at 6:29 PM

      This is exactly what I’m talking about! Despite what many adults might think or say, teens are interested in these issues, and we often don’t give them (and their maturity) enough credit when it comes to talking about them.

      One of the pieces of advice I’ve come across from writers who have themselves experienced mental illness is (1) do your research, but (2) remember that not everyone’s experience is the same. While one person may think a particular story hasn’t “handled” this subject right, another may find it matches their own experiences closely.

      Hope you give it another shot one day 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  5. barbarabrutt
    19/04/2018 at 10:13 PM

    For being aware that mental illness is a big part of life for people in my community as well as in the world in general, I haven’t thought about it much in the extent of books. When I saw your post come into my inbox, I knew I needed to take the time to read it.

    Mental Illness written correctly can be a big part of the story and really help readers to learn empathy for those in their lives struggling with these things (or even for themselves!).

    Um. yes. I hate when “love” solves everything. Of course, I want a happy ending, but love like that is pretty fairy tale!

    Have you read We Were Liars? It’s not really about mental illness, but I think it showcases how the mind is a huge part of the story *tries to sidestep spoilers.*

    Liked by 1 person

    • 19/04/2018 at 10:20 PM

      Thanks for commenting! Books can teach us all sorts of things when done right, and I think this is one of the really important ones (hence the post). I haven’t read We Were Liars but I have heard about it and stumbled across it on Goodreads too many times to count! Sounds like I need to take the time to read it 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  6. 20/04/2018 at 11:33 PM

    We live in a much better time. Conversations like this were done in whispers and quickly swept under the rug. It was there but we were told to look the other way.

    I remember turning to music when I was a boy. Without it I’m afraid to think what I would have done.

    Writers have a lot of power and this is a huge power. We have the ability to help and possibly heal a person dealing with major issues. It is a responsibility nobody should take lightly. Research is key and I am happy to see you supplied it.

    I would never touch this subject unless I had a clear plan on how I was going to handle it. Winging it is not an option.

    Excellent post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 20/04/2018 at 11:42 PM

      Thanks for sharing Bryan 😊 I’m glad the times are a’changing, because ignoring a problem certainly doesn’t make it go away. There’s so much good information out there these days, and it’s exciting yet terrifying to work at converting it into a form that is interesting and engaging for people of all ages (hint hint – BOOKS!).


      • 21/04/2018 at 12:54 AM

        Exactly. More and more people have a way to reach out and not be pushed away. This is an important you touched upon. Well done.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Ari
    22/04/2018 at 8:20 PM

    An excellent article. I especially like how you made it clear that love does not sure mental illness as do often is portrayed.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 23/04/2018 at 11:48 PM

    Great post Rebecca. It’s an important issue to tackle and one I’ve covered in my current WIP. You make an excellent point of mentioning treatment, which is complex in its own right. I’ll make sure I cover this, as I write fantasy/romance I don’t want it to come across as love solving the issue. I write from my own experience and love is irrelevant to mental health. But support and understanding is a huge help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 24/04/2018 at 12:01 AM

      Thanks Lorraine! You bring up an interesting point here: mental illness rep in genres other than contemporary. There is so much opportunity to explore these issues in new, interesting and sensitive ways in fantasy and sci-fi etc, especially since there is scope to present the characters simply as human beings without having to put labels on them. Best of luck with your WIP!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. 05/05/2018 at 12:42 AM

    What a brilliant, informative post! I don’t read too many books about mental illness, but those I have picked up have been wonderful, if difficult reads.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 05/05/2018 at 12:47 AM

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s certainly not an easy thing to read about (or write about!), but then the worthwhile things often aren’t!


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