In honour of May- Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to write about a topic that is very close to me and that is definitely not talked about enough: Mental Health in YA fiction. Of course, this applies to any type of fiction, but I’ve found this issue to be even more prevalent in writing for younger audiences.
At this point, its really important to highlight that I think a lot of races, religions, cultures, genders and sexualities are also under-represented (which I will definitely talk about in a later post) but for Mental Health Awareness Month I wanted to focus specifically on mental health issues.
As a writer, and someone who has suffered from mental health issues (although I obviously don’t have perfect insight into all mental health issues), incorporating these real issues into my own stories is something I am constantly working to do.
Why is it important to incorporate mental health issues into fiction?
1.It’s real life– I mean, you probably know at least a few people with mental illness in real life (hey, maybe even you or your family suffer with it) so why wouldn’t it appear in your favourite books as well?
2. Under-representation is not cool. Seriously, missing out this kind of thing as an author because it feels easier or because you think you can’t do it justice isn’t a good enough excuse. If you haven’t experienced anything like this yourself, fine, you don’t have to write a story with mental illness at the centre, but you can still do some research and include side characters who have mental health issues.
3. If we don’t talk about things, they become taboo-as a society. We have come a long way (and still have a long way to go) to get rid of the mental health taboo and to start speaking out about it. Writing about it in all genres (not just specific non-fiction or self-help books) is a key step to normalizing it in every sense.
As someone who has personally suffered from highs and lows in terms of mental health, I know how awful (at best cringe-worthy, and at worst truly damaging) bad mental health representation can be. But, that’s certainly not a reason not to try to include it in your books. Some of the things I believe need more representation:
Remember that mental illness is incredibly complex
The number 1 thing is not to offend. If you’re worried about it, talk to someone with experience or research it. Of course, if you’re uncomfortable writing focusing solely on mental illness, that’s ok, but it doesn’t mean you have to write it out of your books entirely. Mental issues exist in so many part of our lives, and this includes the fiction we read.
Representation of all mental health disorders
In fiction, anxiety and depression are the perhaps the most written about (maybe because the most people have experienced them) but they are definitely not the only mental health disorders that should be explored. This isn’t to say the more visible mental issues shouldn’t be explored, only that we shouldn’t shy away from writing about mental illnesses that aren’t portrayed as widely in the media.
Mental health issues in fantasy
Ok, this is a massive one. Mental health issues have always been around, and they can be written accurately and non-offensively into fantasy. If you’re worried, make sure to do your research and to talk to people with experience. Incorporating mental health doesn’t mean it has to be the focal point, but you can include it in your characters.
More characters who speak up about mental health
Honestly, I’m sick of the shy characters who keep their feelings hidden (and that’s seen as a cool thing?)- of course, this is a realistic thing in life, but it feels like the most common portrayal of mental illness in YA fiction. Also, characters with anger issues keeping it inside until they explode is obviously a real-life thing but it’s also ok to show characters who get help and who have friends who are there for them
Characters who are more than their mental issues
If you are including a charcter with mental illness, it’s easy to make them defined by that. And maybe that is a big part of them; but, the effects of their mental illness don’t have to over-shadow their personality, hopes, wants, fears.
Absolute number 1. All mental illnesses are completely different but only a minority of symptoms are represented in YA fiction. I’m talking anxiety that is just shyness, anger issues that are just characters shouting every once in a while, mental health issues that just sort of *disappear* throughout the book. None of these are fundamentally unreal representations (everyone experiences mental illness differently) but they can become overdone if they are the only portrayal we’re shown through fiction.
In my current book for example, one of the leading characters has anxiety due to built-in oppression she feels from society. This doesn’t mean she’s slightly jittery and shy in a cute way- she’s completely passionate, yet closed in on herself, and she has random panic attacks when she’s overwhelmed. All mental illness looks different.
Solving mental illness with love (or friendship, family, etc).
Of course, these things can be so helpful and lovely to read in a story, but more often than not, falling in love or making a friend will not cure mental illness. This takes time and a mix of things, and sometimes mental illnesses never go away, they just become bearable and that can be ok too. And speaking of which…
Mental health issues that just disappear
Maybe the author wants a good rounded ending, and thinks making all the characters happy can do that, but it’s just not realistic. Mental health issues do sometimes go away, but they can be a constant, and sometimes truly scary struggle.
As a last note, I think diversity is so important to both read and write about. Personally, I feel if you are going to base you story on exploring a minority or issue, it is better if you have personal experience- an #ownvoices book. But whether you have experience or not, you can weave real life cultures, races, genders, sexualities into your stories if you do a little research and talk to people with real experience.
Some of my favourite YA books that focus on mental illness are:
And I’ll leave you with a quote from perhaps my favourite book about mental illness ever, All the Bright Places:
“there are bright places, even in dark times. And if there isn’t, you can be that bright place.”All the Bright Places- Jennifer Niven
Is there anything in terms of mental health issues that you think should be more present in YA fiction? I’d love to hear about it in the comments or you can get in touch on any of my social medias.