Discussion: Mental Illness in YA

By Shar

Hi people. I recently finished It’s Kind of A Funny Story, and I started thinking about mental health in YA books. And anyway, I think it’s a good  and important thing to talk about, so I thought I’d do a discussion post. 

Let’s begin with discussing books that tackle mental health/illness. One’s I’ve read include It’s Kind of A Funny Story, Falling Into Place, Say What You will, Thirteen Reasons Why, Speak, Wintergirls, Looking for Alaska, All the Bright Places, The Impossible Knife of Memory, We Were Liars, This Song Will Save Your Life, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and that’s all I can think of. I’ve heard that Challenger Deep, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, and others. (Tell me if you’ve read others, readers.)

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So why is mental health and illness important? 

Some studies have shown up to 1 in 3 people live with mental health problems. From depression to OCD, there are so many problems and  books are one way to raise awareness and also reduce stigma from these problems. You know how sometimes on Facebook and things there will be photos (e.g of bald or disabled people) with quotes saying 1 like=1 respect (you can’t quantify respect) and ‘ help me beat cancer by giving me 10,000 likes!’ (these are pretty much word for word quotations by the way. But do you ever see ‘Please like to help me beat depression’ ‘I’m got treatment for my schizophrenia (hard to spell, by the way) so encourage me by sharing!’ No. Even though we have left the straightjackets and padded rooms behind us, there is still a huge amount of stigma around mental disorders that you don’t find in many other areas. This can discourage people from seeking help, and also mean there is less awareness in people. It’s easier to blame someone for having depression than for being born with only three toes. Books are part of culture, specifically pop culture, and represent our society. By reflecting mental health issues, a complex but certain part of our society, in books, we begin to reduce stigma around it. It may be baby steps, but it’s definitely better than nothing.

What is good or necessary in mental disorder novels? (Contribute in the comments!)

Firstly, we need good characters. They need to have a reason for their mental disorder, be more than their problems (meaning that they’re not just a person with depression, for example, but a person with depression who craves success, loves his parents, enjoys peeing, has a complex relationship with his so-called friends, etc, in Craig’s case.) Good characters who are round and detailed, not just ‘here is person. Here is problem. This is complex.’ help the reader have empathy, even if the character is completely different from them, and better understand them as a person, not just a problem. I think this also relates to real mental health disorders, because it is easy to see someone with any disorder- especially severe mental disorders- as just a problem rather than a person with a problem.

Another important aspect is a description of the disorder. It doesn’t have to sound like it came from a medical journal, but at least so the readers know what is actually affecting the person’s mind. This is less necessary with more common problems such as depression, but even with commoner (is that a word) problems it’s just useful for the reader to have a sense of how the character is affected.  This also helps the reader to gauge the reliability of the narrator, because you don’t want to spend half the book being absorbed and then told that all of what you read is a lie and completely irrelevant to the actual plot. I think that It’s Kind of A Funny Story actually did a really good job with this.

I don’t know about everybody else, but for me, I want books of this genre to end with at least a glimmer of hope. For starters ‘then he went crazy and died’ is a very uncreative ending, but I don’t want my characters to have no chance at a better life. It’s grim and I don’t know if mental illness is ever truly cured, but I know that with medication and counselling and things a lot of disorders can get a lot better. The ending needs to be round, not fully ‘now I am totally fine and normal’ (which was one thing that annoyed me about it’s kind of a funny story) but not ‘life is a hopeless pit of despair and I will never ever recover’ .

What is really ridiculous and unnecessary in this genre?

First, insta cure. Like I said (and I really don’t know all that much), mental illness isn’t something that can really be cured, only treated. It seems like an unrealistic and over the top ending, which I disliked and definitely happened in It’s Kind of a Funny Story.   While I do like hopeful endings, just fixing everything doesn’t really work for me.  The ending of Wintergirls and Speak was really good in not ending this way.

Kind of similarly, insta love curing everything. If your mind isn’t super stable, then is it really a good idea to start a relationship? I actually thought Noelle and Craig in IKOAFS were quite a good couple, but they moved way too fast. Besides, considering Craig and Nia the day before, I think this proved that he probably wasn’t in the best place to start going out with Noelle.

Ridiculous characters who don’t add things to the plot are also annoying. In any book, if they’re only there for laughs then that’s a bit pointless. Like with the other category, there are a lot more but I just can’t think of them right now. M

ental illness is a really serious and tough topic to tackle. I think it’s important for authors to tackle, because it is a highly stigmatised and challenging issue, but also relevant to almost anybody. Because of all the challenges around mental health, it is really hard to write about, and it’s easy to make mistakes. But even if a book that tackles mental illness isn’t perfect, it can still be a learning experience for the readers. We need diverse books, and mental health is one part of the gorgeous diversity we find in our everyday lives. Just beginning to address this fragile and unique issue in books will make it easier to confront in our everyday lives.

So, what do you think? I haven’t really done any discussion posts before, so I want some feedback. What are your opinions on mental illness in books? What are books you’ve read with really good representations of mental illness? Do you have anything to add about what makes a boo about mental health really good or not so good? 

11 thoughts on “Discussion: Mental Illness in YA

  1. Pingback: The Showcase tag |
  2. I hate the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental illness. I am so happy to see more and more YA novels beginning to tackle the subject matter. It’s something that needs talking about way more and showing young adults that it’s not something to feel ashamed of. I think insta-cure and also love curing everything are two things that definitely need to stop happening in these books because it’s horribly unrealistic. I love books like All the Bright Places that show that it isn’t easy to overcome a mental illness, no matter how much a person might like to.


    1. Yes, I agree about realistic endings (although the ending of All The Bright Places was so sad. I was in denial about it for quite a while. Like nooooo she’s gonna find him and somehow he’ll go to support group and everything and somehow, slowly he’ll get better. I do think, as a reader, that books are such a good way to prevent stigma and help people know more. Thanks for your comment! ❤


  3. I totally think there’s hugely wrong stigma and stereotypes around mental illness. I think there should be MORE books about it so it makes it less of a taboo subject and more open to be talked about and made people aware. Like, even the other day, it was driving me crazy how someone I know was making all these off hand comments about OCD. And like it was a joke. “Oh OCD is when you have to arrange everything by colour.” Erm…no. And that’s exactly why we need books about it so people can read and actually understand.
    Although, erghhhh I HATE IT WHEN THERE ARE INSTA-CURES. It just makes the whole thing a fantasy and it’s super disturbing.
    I think the “he went crazy and died” endings are enormously sad, but also realistic. I want both, I guess?! I want us, as the audience, to know mental illness can kill you just as much as cancer. But I also want hope for people how HAVE the same conditions and are reading it. If that makes sense?! XD

    Loved this discussion Shar!


    1. Aww thanks Cait!!! I have to admit that I (and plenty of other people I know) have been prey to those kind of jokes/comments. Like ‘can you please not touch my nail polish because I’m kinda OCD about the order.’ type thing. More recently I realised that OCD is an illness and you can’t be OCD just because you like things in a certain order. So I don’t use that word any more. That’s why I think books are really important, not just for enjoyment, but to create awareness and thoughts about a wide variety of issues and places and things we might know nothing about. But it has to be written well, because otherwise books won’t really bring change but rather just confuse the readers or something.


  4. I recently read a book where the main character had “anorexia”. I put it in quotes, because she really didn’t. True anorexia doesn’t go away just because the main character realizes it’s stupid to be starving herself on purpose in the middle of a war when others are starving for real. Sure, she might’ve started eating, but there would’ve probably been a lot of inner conflict and anxiety. Unfortunately, the author didn’t do that, so it came across as an instant cure.

    Another book I read that featured mental illness was one where the character basically had insta-illness… which is just about as unrealistic as an insta-cure. She went from having it all together and then — conveniently when her parents were out of town — started having really severe mental issues. I don’t know if she was manic or psychotic or what. But it had to have come out of the blue… or her parents never would have left her alone for six weeks while they went on a cruise!

    I tend to avoid books that focus solely on mental illness, though. Having lived it, I don’t really want to read about it. Reading is an escape for me. But I do think there should be good books about mental illness out there, to help educate those who might not understand as much about it (and the sorts of stigma that those with mental illness have to deal with).


    1. I didn’t really think of insta-illness, but that’s actually another really important point. Like you said, one of the most important thinks mental health issues in literature is that it can reduce stigma and increase awareness of the wide variety of mental issues. With things like anorexia, with my limited experience with it, it never fully goes away and you can’t just decide to eat out of willpower. Also, any illness involves a lot of factors, like genetic, environmental, other things. So insta illness isn’t really a possibility, and this really ruins the experience for any reader, especially somebody who knows more about mental illness than the authour. Thanks for your comment!~


  5. Yep, mental illness is HUGELY important in fiction – especially because it affects teenagers the most out of any age bracket. Honestly, as long as a portrayal of mental illness is realistic, I don’t mind how it’s done – insta-love as a cure is SUPER annoying, though. Like, you don’t get “fixed” just because you get a boyfriend. Grr.

    Super awesome post considering you haven’t done any discussions before 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks emily! Because I don’t know all that much about mental illness, I’m kind of just basing it off what I know. Yes, the instalove as a cure thing is just ridiculous. I’m glad you agree!


  6. You’re absolutely right, mental illness is really important (and when reviews tell me it’s well treated in a book, it gets bumped up on my TBR!) I haven’t quite gotten the hang of writing it, although I am reading voraciously in that aspect. I really hate it when writers do insta-love or insta-cure as well — when I read through fanfics if there’s so much as a hint of that I never click through.


    1. I think with some books, it’s ‘write what you know’ and if you haven’t had a lot of experience with mental illness then of course it would be harder to write about. I think it’s better to write it well than to include it for the sake of diversity (although that is another discussion altogether.) 🙂


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