Mental health issues in YA fiction can be a great way of helping teens make sense of their own misbehaving brains – as long as they’re tackled responsibly. YA Author Holly Bourne has just launched an online book club with mental health charity Rethink and explains why more understanding is needed.
We are in the midst of a teen mental health epidemic. Think I’m being dramatic? The Mental Health Foundation found that rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers has increased by seventy per cent over the past twenty-five years. And one-in-ten young people will experience a mental health problem before the age of fifteen.
If teen books want to truly reflect the world around them, we don’t need the odd one to be about mental health. They all need to be about mental health. Because like puberty, acne, bullying, popular kids and arguments with parents – mental unwellness is now an unavoidable fabric in the quilt of teen life. If a young person doesn’t have a problem, you can be certain they know someone who does. But, how, as an author, do you address such an important topic sensitively?
People are more than just a label
When writing Am I Normal Yet?, it was important that Evie wasn’t just a diagnosis – she was a person who happens to have OCD. She had interests and insecurities that had nothing to do with her condition. She was sharp, funny, sarcastic, and had boobs she thought were too big. Yes, she worried about her relapse, yes, she was obsessed with touching lamp-posts – but she was also obsessed with why that boy hadn’t texted her back yet. Because she’s a teenager!
There is a delicate balance of being honest about the darker sides of mental illness alongside not triggering potentially vulnerable readers. Some behaviours can trigger copycat reactions, and any author who’s done their research should be aware of this. For example, in my book The Manifesto on How to be Interesting the main character, Bree, self-harms yet I never had the reader in the same room as her when she did it, to minimise harm. The topic of triggering is complex and I could write a whole dissertation on it, but, as a rule, any teen book that graphically describes self-harm or methods of suicide is doing more harm than good.
Everyone has mental health
Just like physical health, all of us have mental health and therefore all of us have good days, bad days and I’m-going to-scream-into-this-pillow days. Mental health problems do not exist in a vacuum either. Our wellbeing is vastly affected by the world around us, and teen books should reflect this. In What’s A Girl Gotta Do? Lottie has never experienced mental health issues until she becomes the target of horrific online abuse. Then, oddly enough, she’s low, tearful and distances herself from her friends and family. A book doesn’t have to be about a particular mental health condition to be about mental health.
We can fight back
Our understanding of mental illness is moving away from a biological model of thinking (‘my brain is just like this’), to recognising that mental illness is caused by a combination of social, psychological and biological factors. There are many outside forces creating this epidemic, and we can kick back against them. My Spinster Club trilogy focuses on activism and feminism to try and help teens realise that gender construct plays a huge role in making boys and girls unhappy. I hope my books inspire my readers to try and tackle the underlying causes of mental health issues, as well as coping with the symptoms that an unhealthy society creates.
Reading can be therapy
Research from the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by sixty-eight per cent. And it’s better at combating stress than listening to music or taking a walk. That’s why I’m prone to using my ANGRY VOICE with anyone judging a teen book for being too fluffy or easy. If a teenager is reading, that can only be a good thing. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a healthy way of processing (or just safely escaping) what they’re going through. Also, considering a survey by charity Young Minds put academic pressure as one of the biggest causes of stress, why would you exasperate this by judging their reading for pleasure?
There’s no denying that mental illness in young people is a complex and sensitive topic. But, when handled appropriately, YA fiction can be an incredibly positive way of helping teens feel understood and listened to. Sometimes the right book given to someone at the right time can even save a life.
Holly’s books, all published by Usborne:
Am I Normal Yet? 978-1-4095-9030-9, £7.99 pbk
The Manifesto on How to be Interesting, 978-1-4095-6218-4, £7.99 pbk
What’s A Girl Gotta Do?
And a Happy New Year?, 978-1-4749-2722-2, a Spinster Club novella, will be published on 1 November 2016.
Holly’s YA and mental health recommendations:
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, Simon and Schuster, 978-1-8473-9407-1, £7.99 pbk
A classic for a good reason. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower tackles issues such a social anxiety, loneliness, grief, abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder – but in an uplifting and beautiful way, paying homage to the potent power of teen friendships.
When We Collided, Emery Lord, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1408870082, £7.99 pbk
A beautiful examination of how mental illness can impact romantic relationships – as well as steering clear of the trope that finding The One will cure all. Viv has Bi-Polar, Jonah is grieving the loss of his father, and the two of them collide to help pull each other through a dark summer.
Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Louise Gornall, Chicken House, 978-1-9106-5586-3, £7.99 pbk
A beautiful yet unflinching depiction of agoraphobia that is uncompromising in its truth. Manages to make a novel set entirely in one house totally compelling too.