Feeling Blue: Importance of positive mental health portrayals in books

The definition of mental health has broadened over a number of decades because the more we learn about the human brain, the more we recognise its ability to heal, but also to break. All sorts of conditions are being accepted as disorders, but there are some experts who would prefer to use the word, ‘neurological’, rather than the more negative sounding ‘mental’.

Young Adult literature has always dealt with issues of the mind, including eating disorders, suicide, drug addiction, depression, and these have come to be included in the broadest sense of a mental health definition. But those diseases that are more strictly classified, such as Bipolar, OCD, and schizophrenia have only been recently included (although there’s an nice irony that as the commonly accepted first YA novel, Catcher in the Rye (July, 1951) appropriately focuses on Holden’s mental health).

It’s crucial that YA texts deal with these types of social issues, but it’s equally important that they deal with them respectfully, and authentically. The books I want to talk about do have their critics, and it’s possible to debate extensively about the romanticising of some issues versus the obligation to make everything sound very real. But surely it’s better to have a book that brings awareness to a little known issue, even if its exploration is light, rather than to have no book at all? I am sure there are many opinions on both sides of that claim.

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Tamara Stone’s Every Last Word (June, 2015) gives us Samantha who suffers from OCD, and whose life is one mistake away from falling apart. Although some reviewers claim many realities of this affliction are glossed over, I was quite convinced by it. I found Sam’s troubles debilitating enough to have a sense of what it is like to have this disorder. There are all sorts of elements at play here, and a clever author can find ways to inject their narrative with more than one issue, and tie them together cohesively and organically.

When We Collided by Emery Lord (April 2016) does the thing where initially we don’t know Vivi’s in trouble. It cleverly announces Jonah’s troubles very early on, and their collision course of love is inevitably going to reveal the truth about Vivi. Jonah’s improved mental health is linked directly to Vivi’s arrival and attraction to him, and all the while, she is on a decline. It’s an astonishing exploration of community, and the need for individuals to own their weaknesses.

Technically Jack’s disability in Holding up the Universe (October, 2016) by Jennifer Niven is not strictly a mental health issue. But face blindness is a disease of the brain, and it’s something that has found its way into YA literature, and is worth mentioning. Niven presents a very flawed character in Jack, and reminds us how important it is for us to try not to judge people too harshly. It is so easy to do when you only see the surface, the actions of a person, and you really don’t know what they struggle to achieve. The other main character, Libby deals with a weight issue, and her representation is important as well.

It’s absolutely important for characters like Sam and Vivi to be presented in YA fiction. We need to see a wide range of characters. We need to watch them make mistakes, and not give up. We need kids to support each other, and look beyond the superficial. We need to be kind to one another.

These three books all try to provide their characters with the possibility of success. They are inspiring and worthwhile.

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