Young Adult novels aren’t just popular with teenagers, but with adults and pre-teens alike. For many younger readers, books are one way they learn about life – about relationships, sex, family issues, sexuality and gender… And with YA novels covering such a broad range of topics (including a wide variety of genres, protagonists, and diverse characters), why shouldn’t mental health make the list of Things That Should Be Included in YA?
Society is becoming more accepting of talking about mental health, in a no-holds-barred way that doesn’t romanticise suffering. That has a lot to do with social networks like Twitter and Tumblr – but YA books have their say in this too.
YA goes through phases: we had vampires when Twilight was in the number one spot, dystopian novels surged to the surface in the wake of The Hunger Games, and ‘sick-lit’ even became a sub-genre, after novels like The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay.
But mental health – depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, PTSD, OCD… There’s still a huge taboo. We’re only just starting to get rid of that taboo.
Let me be clear: I don’t think you can class dealing with mental health in YA novels as a phase. It’s not. It isn’t a sub-genre, just like having a gay protagonist isn’t. It’s important. Young people have a huge voice online, but if you have mental health difficulties, you can feel incredibly alone. It isn’t easy to branch out to close friends or family, and support is so important when you’re suffering. Too many suffer in silence, and sometimes that can make things worse for the individual.
Plus, they’re important for people who don’t suffer from a mental illness. It’s all well and good to email a link to someone with a WebMD article on the symptoms of bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t mean they understand.
Articles inform. Books make people feel. Books can make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. If you don’t have a mental illness yourself but read a book with a character who suffers from one, you might begin to understand what someone is going through, and be able to offer them better support.
Books that treat mental illnesses in a real, raw way can make you feel a lot less alone if you’re suffering. Whether it’s, “Oh, hey, they talked to their family about it and everything didn’t turn to shit. I can tell my family too,” or if it’s just, “Oh thank God I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
Like I said – there’s still a taboo. We’re talking about it, but maybe not enough. It’s still very difficult to talk about, for a lot of people. So having something to connect with and that helps you understand that it’s okay, you’re not alone, people will still love and support you, can be a huge relief and comfort to young people.
So why is it important to talk about mental health and mental illnesses in YA?
Surely a better question is, why shouldn’t we be talking about these things in YA?
And since I’m here and talking about it, I’d like to leave you guys with a list of some YA novels that deal with mental illnesses:
Finding Audrey, by Sophie Kinsella
Name sound familiar? Sophie Kinsella wrote the Shopaholic series for adults, and this is her first YA novel. The protagonist, Audrey, suffers from GAD, social anxiety disorder, and depressive episodes, and the story follows just part of her road to recovery.
Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Of course this has to make the list: Charlie, the main character, has depression and suffers blackouts occasionally. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.
The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting, by Holly Bourne
An incredible novel whose protagonist, Bree, suffers from severe depression and self-harms. Bree’s illness isn’t the focus of the novel (this is instead all about her ‘manifesto’ on becoming popular, and opening up, and, well, being interesting), but it’s a poignant storyline nonetheless.
Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne
Another Holly Bourne book! (Quite honestly, I’d recommend every one of her books, but this is the only other one I’ll add to this list.) Main gal Evie suffers from OCD and GAD. Again, an important storyline, but not the main one, making it a refreshing read. (If you read nothing else from this list, I recommend this one – it. Was. AMAZING.)
Entangled, by Cat Clarke
Cat Clarke always deals with great ‘issues’ when it comes to diversity – LGBTQ+ characters and mental illnesses both. Entangled follows Grace, who wakes up in a strange room with paper to write her story onto. Grace has severe depression, self-harms, and the book also deals with attempted suicide (full disclosure because, you know, trigger warnings).
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini
Craig, the protagonist, is struggling. When he checks himself into hospital after a suicidal episode, the story follows his recovery on the mental health ward, where Craig is surrounded by people and their stories.
All The Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven
Trigger warnings here include: depression, bipolar disorder, grief and suicidal issues. (Trying to avoid any spoilers, but I want you guys to be aware. Also, a box of tissues and a tub of ice cream may well be required: this reduced me to a complete wreck.) A very character-driven story, this was one of my favourites reads last year.
About the author of this post: Beth Reekles is a 21-year-old Young Adult author from South Wales, and a Physics graduate from Exeter University. She began posting her first novel, The Kissing Booth, online to Wattpad when she was 15 years old, and when she was 17 she earned a three-book deal with Random House. In 2013, she was on the Time’s Top 16 Most Influential Teens list, and in 2014 she was nominated for the Queen of Teen awards. Her current published works are: The Kissing Booth, Rolling Dice, Out of Tune, and Cwtch Me If You Can. She runs a blog at http://authorbethreekles.tumblr.com
Tumblr blog: http://authorbethreekles.tumblr.com