The Difficulties of Mental Illness in Young Adult Novels

The Difficulties of Mental Illness in Young Adult Novels


This is the longest post I will probably ever write, but bare with me.

I think a lot of people can understand that mental illness is real, but I think the misunderstanding of mental illness begins when we start searching for reasons why so-and-so is depressed or why so-and-so struggles with anxiety. We naturally want to seek out reasons for why people feel the way they do. We think that all mental illness has to be completely situational and that at its heart, mental illness must stem from some sort of trauma that would have anybody understanding why so-and-so is so ill.

I’ve just rid myself of that curiosity. Yes, I think it is important to find the root cause of mental illness so the healing can begin, but now I’ve shifted my mindset so that instead of asking mentally ill people why they feel the way they do, I now realize it is more important how they feel and not why they feel that way. It’s traumatizing in itself to feel so depressed you can’t get out of bed, or so suicidal you want to tear yourself apart so you don’t have to deal with yourself.

Yet, some people are not going to share this mindset. Some people are going to fish for reasons and compare one reason to another.

I bring this topic up because now that I am doing a book giveaway of 13 Reasons Why, I want to discuss mental illness in young adult novels and why it’s such a difficult topic to tackle. A lot of reviewers for Jay Asher’s book pointed out that Hannah was being a bit pathetic for committing suicide over the reasons that she did. They lament there are people so much worse off than Hannah and claimed her reasons for wanting to die were stupid. Even MC Clay wants to place the blame on Hannah, which is a natural thing to do. However, Jay Asher does his best to explain the snowball effect, whereby so much stuff just builds up, eventually snowballing and crushing the person under the weight of that snowball. If stress is not reconciled, it’s going to build up and break you. I thought Jay Asher did a marvelous job at explaining this, and when I read it in high school, I understood it. I don’t think there are any good reasons to commit suicide, but I understand why Hannah broke. And Hannah was probably depressed from all the stress, something Jay Asher did not explicitly state but rather implied. What is more tragic than Hannah’s death is that no one saw Hannah coming apart.

But the problem with 13 Reasons Why is that not every teen who reads it is going to understand that–and I am excluding adults from this equation because the book isn’t meant for them. No matter how much Jay Asher stresses the snowball effect, our society wants us to believe that tragic individuals are tragic because of severe trauma.

Mental illness has a root cause, but everyone’s breaking point is different. My breaking point occurred due to a bad time with my fibromyalgia. It is much better now, but it seems to freak out around the fall. I was working, doing ballet, and taking classes, and eventually all the stress piled up to the point where I found myself having to drop ballet in favor of naps because I would be so fatigued from fibro flares, and work wore on me because I’d get flares during work, and eventually I started feeling pathetic because all I did was sleep, sleep, sleep, and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything I loved. So it was work, work, work, and sleep, sleep, sleep, and ouch, ouch, ouch. That snowballed me to the point where I became depressed and suicidal because it didn’t feel like there was going to be an end to the pain. So there wasn’t just one cause, and it never is for mental illness.

Hannah’s breaking point occurred because it’s obvious she was a lonely girl in the first place who struggled with poor self-esteem. So all this stuff happened to her that never got reconciled, built up, and broke her. She likely became depressed and dwelled heavily on these things and blamed herself for everything that happened. Since she is a teenager, she has no wider perspective to realize that high school is not all there is to the world, and so she saw no way out. She never reached out to anyone, and so she felt trapped.

Rethink Mental Illness
Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not the fault of 13 Reasons Why but the fault of a society that believes tragic individuals are tragic because of severe trauma, not because of vulnerable personalities shaped by a society that believes hardening individuals to the “cruelties” of life is the best way for them to survive, rather than creating compassionate individuals who help one another out of love and not some desire for something in return. So a lot of criticism in young adult books is aimed at the mental illnesses themselves because people want a reason for why a character is depressed. Frankly, by the time one has reached the stage of depression the syndrome, it no longer matters why that person is depressed. It is the fact that that person is depressed in the first place that matters more than the reasons.

I am worried about how my WIP Stolentime will one day be received. It deals heavily with depression and suicidal ideation. Gene dwells on suicide a lot. It is my hope that my book will help people better understand these dark feelings, but I realize a lot of people won’t. They might perceive him as whiny, that he needs to get over it, but I am going to do my best not to convey him that way and just convey him the way people suffering from suicidal ideation actually are. Most are not whiny. I certainly wasn’t. I was quiet and withdrawn, left to my own thoughts. I want my book to reach out to the ones who are quiet and withdrawn, and I want my book to reach out to those who judge mental illness and help them better understand it. My book isn’t just about a depressed teen, but a depressed teen who understands depression all too well and even mentions that depression is a trauma unto itself, that the reasons for depression don’t matter as much as the illness itself.

7 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Mental Illness in Young Adult Novels

  1. I totally agree with this. One other thing people don’t understand about anxiety and depression is that some people are just pre-disposed to these kinds of conditions. Personally, I have no idea where my anxiety comes from but I have vivid memories of dealing with it as young as five or six. Since I don’t recall any specific trauma as a child, I have to assume that I was just born with a natural biological tendency to being highly sensitive and anxious. Of course, this never turned into full-blown depression until I lost my father about three years ago, which was obviously a significant trauma, but the point is there is so much we can’t rationalize about anxiety and depression, which like you said makes it really difficult to write about. My two cents of advice when it comes to trying not to have your character come across as too whiny, is to maybe concentrate on those physical aspects of depression that other characters in the story can actually see/sense–being withdrawn and quiet. I think if you spent too much time in his internal thoughts, we’d see him trying to rationalize his own emotions and I can see constant thoughts like that maybe being a little overwhelming to the reader. But it also might help if the main character is wondering too where his anxiety comes from–I know I’ve done a lot of that. Thanks for bringing light to this issue. I’ve struggled for a long time with trying to explain my anxiety to people. Most think that unless something terrible has happened to you, that you don’t have permission to be depressed. But that’s just not how it works.

    1. That actually is a really good idea. I’m definitely going to parse down on the internalization for the revisions. He also doesn’t remember what happened to him to trigger a depressive episode (so half of the book is spent giving Gene these triggering memories…through fantastical means since it is a dark fantasy). But for him, all that matters is he is depressed. But definitely less internalization. I think I’ll make him almost numb to his own thoughts.

  2. This is such a great post. When I get home, I am going to link to this from the RCC forums on the depression topic. Thanks Amber!

    Also, something that would be kind of neat is if you had a follow up post of things you think we could do to help society change to nourish individuals and help each other out of love instead of forcing people to face the cruel realities of the world. (I really liked that bit).

    1. That is a really good idea for a post! I’ll probably do it tomorrow since this one was so long compared to my average posts. It’s going on the calendar.

  3. Agree 100%. I was a suicidal teen myself so I understand what you mean when you talk about the snowball effect of just little stresses adding up into a major trauma over time. When I tried to commit suicide at 16 everyone scrambled for a reason. Even my therapist was sure that it was because my mother had died of cancer several years before, and no matter how many times I tried to tell people “It’s not because of my mom. I’m fine with that… it was ages ago.” no one would listen. My depression was a snowball effect of more than a dozen years of being put down by my family, stress at school, and general anxiety. There were big issues and little issues, and some that were all in my head, but overtime when you can’t get that stress relieved, it builds.. and then, eventually, it breaks. I applaud you for trying to get other people to understand. Some will, some won’t, but it’s a valiant cause to try and bring awareness to.

  4. It took a lot out of me to read this post. We often have to ask “Why” but; the hardest thing to understand is that there are sometimes no explanations. I’ve had trauma; and the hardest thing is accepting that sometimes things happen just because. To try to find a reason or articulate every time you feel a certain way- makes life sound like cause-effect. I think the only way we’ll be happy is to realize that not everything is cause and effect, sometimes things happen that are unexpected, and we can try to work through it to the best of our ability. Don’t ask why- just act.

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