Mental Illness in Young Adult Books

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In my first BookTube video BookTube Newbie Tag, I mentioned how I was able to include starting a BookTube channel into a project for one of my graduate school classes.

Since I was able to choose my own topic for my Disabilities Studies class’ final project, I decided to explore how mental illnesses are represented in young adult books.

Well, I read 5 YA books, made 2 videos for my channel, wrote 2 blog posts, recorded an audio file, and finally completed the project. 🙃

Now, I want to share my hope for this project, review the books I read and how they represented mental illness, and—in my next blog post—discuss why I made a second (unplanned) video for my BookTube channel. 🖤

So why did I choose this topic for my project?

Mental illness runs in in my family, but I didn’t think it affected me.

At least, not until recently.

Not until I started having more frequent panic attacks, and I realized some of my asthma attacks over the years weren’t actually “asthma attacks,” and then memories started coming together like pieces in my mental health puzzle. I began to realize my “normal” wasn’t everyone else’s “normal.” (Which, in hindsight, I think I already knew, since these were things I learned not to talk about and still struggle to talk about.)

Reading YA books played a positive role in helping me identify my thoughts and actions—where I haven’t felt in control—as anxiety and depression. Being inside the mind of characters with anxiety and being inside the mind of characters with depression wasn’t jarring. It was (mostly) relieving.

For the first time, I was reading my own “thought spirals,” as termed in John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, and I didn’t feel alone. For so long, I never talked about my spirals because, when I had as a child, I was called “over-dramatic,” “overly sensitive,” “selfish,” “annoying,” and even “evil.” So I kept silent. I kept my spirals hidden.

But even now, as I start to try and talk about them with friends and family, I don’t feel understood. Books, though, have understood, which is why I wanted to do this project.

I wanted to talk about books featuring mental illness in a public way (and reflect on what other BookTubers are saying about them) because—at least for me—my mental health has been a silent, private, and inner battle. My hope is to talk about this typically private issue a bit more publicly.

Mental Health Book Review

355044311. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

The first book I’m reviewing is Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, which I gave a 3 star rating on Goodreads. This book is more about sixteen-year-old Aza struggling with the worst of her OCD and anxiety and less about her and her best friend Daisy attempting to solve the mysterious disappearance of a billionaire, who happens to be the dad of Aza’s childhood friend Davis, which comes with a $100,000 reward.

Out of the 5 books I read for this project, this book portrayed the mental illnesses represented the most accurately and the most beneficially, which makes sense because this book is #ownvoices, as John Green has identified as having both OCD and anxiety. In her video Turtles All The Way Down by John Green!, Hannah from A Clockwork Reader acknowledges that, “John Green himself struggles with OCD and anxiety. This book is basically his own personal story written in a fictionalized novel, and so because of that you can tell, like you can just tell how personal this was to him. […] He truly understands what mental illness feels like.” For example, one of my favorite passages from the book in terms of illustrating “what mental illness feels like” is the following:

“For a moment, you think you’re better. You’ve just had a successful train of thought, with an engine and a caboose and everything. Your thoughts. Authored by you. And then you feel a wave of nausea, a fist clenching from within your rib cage, cold sweat hot forehead you’ve got it it’s already inside of you crowding out everything else taking you over and it’s going to kill you and eat its way out of you and then in a small voice, half strangled by the ineffable horror, you barely squeeze out the words you need to say. ‘I’m in trouble, Mom. Big trouble’” (231).

Not only did I connect with Aza, especially in regard to her “thought spirals,” but other BookTubers seemed to as well. For example, again from her video Turtles All The Way Down by John Green!, Hannah says the following:

“[Aza] has these thought spirals, and the way that John Green writes about them is incredible because it’s exactly what it feels like. […] It’s exactly what I’ve experienced in my life. It’s so incredible to be able to read that because it validates the way that you feel. Like, I had spent so much of that time doubting my own feelings, doubting my own mind, and more than just not understanding why I was feeling a certain way, not wanting to believe that I felt that way, and thinking that I shouldn’t be feeling that way. So to then see Aza going through the exact same thing, doing the same thing, arguing with her own mind, in a way that I have experienced to the most personal level was just so so incredible. It broke my heart. Like I cried every single time I read it and I still cry just like thinking about it because, despite the fact that I know that other people also experience this, it’s different when you’re inside the mind of a character and you’re reading it in a book, which is a personal experience that you can’t always experience just talking to someone else who understands that feeling. So to be as close as we possibly can in the mind of another person and know that they feel exactly what you feel, they feel the thoughts that you’ve been telling yourself that you’re not allowed to feel that you shouldn’t be feeling, that makes you feel like you’re not alone and that’s exactly what this book did for me.”

Like Hannah, who shares that she has an anxiety disorder, I felt very similarly in regard to connecting with a Aza and this book, which hopefully suggests that other readers that have OCD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses will connect as well.

Also, I really appreciated Aza’s relationship with Dr. Singh, since—especially within young adult books—mental health professionals are often not portrayed as compassionate or helpful. Honestly, the character of Dr. Singh made me think about finding a professional to talk to about my panic attacks. For instance, after Aza calls herself “crazy,” Dr. Singh says the following:

“‘I want to share something Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache…The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.’ And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify, which is why I’d ask you to frame your mental health around a word other than crazy.’” (89)

Dr. Singh explains why the word “crazy” negatively and unjustly frames Aza’s mental illness, and she asks Aza to frame it differently. Not only did this scene make me feel understood, I think it’s important for readers who do not have a mental illness as well because it demonstrates how certain words are damaging. But it also demonstrates how words are crucial at the same time. Until I claimed the words “anxiety” and “depression,” I had other words given to me, just like Aza had “crazy.” Now that I have those labels, even though I don’t always feel understood, I understand myself.

Also, when she visits Aza in the hospital, Dr. Singh learns that Aza is not taking her medication. Instead of discounting Aza’s experience with the medication, she tells Aza, “We need to get you on a different medication, one that works better for you, that you can tolerate, and that you’ll take” (234).  Dr. Singh believes her when Aza says she doesn’t like how the medicine makes her feel, and rather than chalking it all up to Aza not taking the medication as directed, she promises to work with Aza to find a new medication.

To sum up my review of this book, if I was rating it solely on its representation of mental illness, I would have given it 5 stars on Goodreads, but it was a 3 star story. However, I would definitely recommend it for its representation alone.

294565982. Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

The next book, which I rated 5 stars on Goodreads, is Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, which is also #ownvoices, as both Akemi and the main character Kiko Himura areJapanese-American and have social anxiety.

Kiko Himura is hanging on to the hope that she will be accepted into her dream art college Prism to escape her mom, her abusive uncle, and the feeling of not belonging in her own house, with her own family, or around her peers. Soon after reconnecting with her childhood best friend Jamie and finding out that she wasn’t accepted, Kiko graduates from high school and leaves with Jamie for California, where his family lives and where he goes to college. There, she begins to confront her social anxiety and self-conflicting mentality that her mother instilled.

The first time I mentioned this book on my BookTube channel was in my Makeup Book Tag video, and I briefly mentioned that I relate to Kiko and how she describes her social anxiety. Here are some examples:

  • “My heart thuds. When I swallow, I feel my throat close up. I’m so jittery and squeamish and cold that I feel like I’m going to die. Literally, the best thing that could happen right now is that my body could just evaporate into the air and I would never have to face so many people” (25).
  • “I bite my lip because I’m worried I’m going to start crying like a weirdo. I’m not used to having to vocalize how social anxiety makes me feel” (124).
  • “My stomach somersaults and I feel something swell inside my chest. It isn’t long before my throat tightens and my head starts to spin” (125).
  • “My hand trembles beneath Jamie’s. He doesn’t understand what’s happening inside my core. He doesn’t realize there are earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanic eruptions destroying my brain and my heart and my soul. I am terrified of Hiroshi rejecting me. I’m terrified of anyone rejecting me” (195).
  • “Maybe Hiroshi is wondering why I bring Jamie everywhere with me. Maybe he’s going to figure out I don’t know anything about independence because I can’t go anywhere new without having a panic attack.” (198).
  • “I want to sink to the floor and cry. It’s too much staring. I hate the spotlight” (199).
  • “The anxious bugs start to envelop my skin, and once again I’m so nervous I feel like I’m about to pass out” (239).

I could keep going, but I’ll stop. There are just so many quotes in here that made me feel understood—and that helped me understand myself.

On the other hand, while I felt well represented in this book, I was concerned about its representation of other mental illnesses concerning the character of Kiko’s mom. For instance, Kiko says, “split-personality, narcissistic, psychopathic mom” in a derogatory manner (313). In the scene below, she also uses the term “sociopath” negatively as well:

“Jamie smiles without his teeth, but it’s still the warmest, kindest smile I’ve ever seen. ‘You want to make everyone happy. Even if it’s sometimes at the expense of your own happiness.’

‘Oh my God, I’m a people pleaser? That’s the worst.’

‘I think compulsive liar is a lot worse.’

‘Or sociopath.’

‘Or serial killer.’

‘Or cannibal.’” (115)

The way that Kiko frames these mental illnesses is similar to the use of the word “crazy” discussed in Turtles All the Way Down—Kiko strips her mom of the understanding that she herself craves. Since I relate to Kiko, though, I sided with Kiko and viewed her mom as a bitch. Kiko’s social anxiety only harmed herself, while her mom’s psychopath tendencies harmed her marriage, her children, and herself. However, I think this book brings up a discussion for how mental illnesses carry different stigmas and challenges—and also affect the people around us differently.

In summary, I want to read this book again, I want everyone to read this book, and I want to read every book Akemi Dawn Bowman ever writes. I gave this book 5 stars because of how well I felt represented, how well I connected to Kiko, and how much I enjoyed the story.

236773413. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson is about high schooler Henry Denton, who—not only is dealing with guilt and depression after his boyfriend’s death by suicide—is recurrently abducted by aliens. When the aliens give him a red button that he can press to save Earth from its upcoming destruction, Henry doesn’t want to press it. He doesn’t know if he should press it. He doesn’t know if the world is worth saving.

As suggested in the synopsis, suicide is a major topic within this novel, not only as Henry thinks about Jesse’s death by suicide, but as he considers death by suicide himself a couple times within the novel:

  • “I shut off my computer and flopped across my bed, letting my head fall backward so that the blood rushed to my brain. The pressure increased, and I counted the quickening thud-thud-thud of my heartbeat. I wondered how long I’d have to stay upside down before I passed out. How long after that before I’d die. I wondered what Jesse had thought about after he’d stepped off the edge of his desk and dangled on the end of the rope” (55).
  • “Beautiful resolve flowed through me. I imagined it was how Jesse had felt when he decided to hang himself. I wasn’t scared; I wasn’t conflicted. This was what I was meant to do. If nobody else was going to play by the rules, then neither was I” (202).

Despite considering death by suicide himself, Henry still reflects on Jesse’s death by suicide as selfish, as if Jesse left him and made a thoughtful decision rather than recognizing Jesse’s mental illness. I had hoped by the end of the novel Henry would recognize that Jesse’s death by suicide was not “selfish” but that Jesse had been struggling with and not supported in maintaining his mental health. While this book gave an accurate portrayal of the stigma surrounding depression, I found it lacking in its conclusion regarding suicide.

Also, Henry’s depression was also portrayed in connection with his guilt—and grief—over Jesse’s death by suicide, as Henry says, “Grief is an ocean, and guilt the undertow that pulls me beneath the waves and drowns me.” (356). However, Audrey, who was Jesse’s best friend, also experiences mental illness in connection with guilt after Jesse’s death by suicide, as she confesses to Henry that, “‘Jesse and I had a pact. He swore he’d call me if he were thinking about hurting himself. He called me that night, but I didn’t answer. He was upset all the time and…I needed a night off.’ She paused. ‘I thought it was my fault he’d killed himself, and I didn’t tell you because I couldn’t bear for you to blame me too’” (194). While Audrey’s guilt stems from knowing and not informing others of Jesse’s mental illness, Henry’s guilt stems from acting as a bystander and not questioning Jesse about his depressive behaviors and actions: “Thinking about the times I suspected something was wrong but didn’t push Jesse to talk about it keeps me awake most nights. I failed Jesse. We all failed him” (193) and “Audrey may not have told me about Jesse’s troubles, but I had willfully ignored their signs. I’d let myself believe the lies because it was easier than digging for the truth” (215). Though they do not take responsibility by any means, I think this is a very real and accurate representation of how people react after a loved one’s death by suicide.

However, at the same time, I think people often respond to mental illness by ignoring these behaviors, as they do not want or have not been taught how to respond to behaviors outside the social norm. This can also be viewed in relation to Henry’s mom refusing to believe and respond to Henry’s diagnosis from multiple psychiatrists:

“After the first abduction, my mom sent me to one doctor after another. She never believed the various diagnoses—she hadn’t believed I was being abducted by aliens either. When they said I was depressed, she refused to let them medicate me. When they said I had avoidant personality disorder, she told them I just hadn’t learned to be comfortable in my own skin. She didn’t believe the psychiatrists, she didn’t believe in aliens, but she always believed in me. Through everything, she held fast to the notion that I didn’t need help, that all I needed was time to figure out who I was. I’m not sure if she was right, or if I would have been better off on pills or locked up in a mental hospital, but her belief in me was absolute. […] But in the end, it was her belief that kept me from telling her the truth. It wasn’t her frailty. It was the certainty that we’d all be dead in sixty days. It was the knowledge that none of our choices mattered, that all our pain and all our suffering would end with the world, and we’d be free of those burdens. No faulty memory, no baby, no shitty job, or dead boyfriend. Just the perfect peace of nothingness. That’s what I believed” (274-5).

Aside from guilt, Henry’s depression is also depicted in terms of self-worthlessness and grief:

  • “Think about all those little rituals that sustain you throughout your day—from the moment you wake up until the last, lonely midnight hour when you guzzle a gallon of NyQuil to drown out the persistent voice in your head. The one that whispers you should give up, give in, that tomorrow won’t be better than today” (1).
  • “Your entire sense of self-worth is predicated upon your belief that you matter, that you matter to the universe. But you don’t. Because we are the ants” (4).
  • I’m beginning to think you should have hanged yourself rather than me. I probably would have cried over you, but I wouldn’t have come to this. Jesus Christ, you’re fucking pathetic. I don’t know what I ever saw in you. […] I only killed myself because of you. To escape you. You smothered me, Henry Denton. You loved me to death. You should be dead, not me” (146).
  • “I lay in bed all day Saturday, thinking about Jesse. Sometimes thinking about him made my body too heavy to move. The fragments of Jesse left behind were dense in my pockets and weighted me down, pulling me toward the center” (199).
  • “I could fix all that I’d broken. But I was broken too, and I didn’t know how to fix myself” (433).

I appreciated that depression was not just portrayed in connection with guilt, as self-worthlessness is something that I relate to and that I think others would relate to as well.

Violence, bullying, and harassment are other themes carried throughout this novel, which I find this interesting, as All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven portrays these themes in relation to depression as well (though I don’t get into that within its review). However, here are a couple quotes from from We Are the Ants that feature these themes:

  • “Adrian tried to protect his face, but my fist connected with something solid, and that only made me fight harder. It seemed like hours but was probably only seconds before he kneed me in the crotch, knocking the breath out of me. I fell to the ground, and he kicked me, but I roared back and tackled him, slamming his back against the lockers, pounding him with fists. I was beyond pain, beyond all reason. I didn’t care about anything. Not me, not Jesse, not Marcus. The world was ending, and there were no more consequences. I think I was going to kill him” (114)
  • This is how I die. In the midst of the chaos in my mind, that’s the thought that calmed me. This didn’t matter. Nothing they did to me was important. I’d been ready to let the world end, prepared to sit back and wait for the apocalypse. What did it matter if I died a few weeks early? What did I matter at all?” (144)

Last, I want to mention how mental health facilities were characterized, as they were seen as both positive and negative. For instance, Audrey went to and was released from a facility after Jesse’s death by suicide: “Audrey bit her bottom lip and said, ‘My parents checked me in to a psychiatric hospital. I spent eight weeks there and then another month with my grandparents in Jersey’” (193). However, at the end of the novel when Henry chooses to go to a facility, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey visits him, and when she begins to cry, he says, “Zooey’s bottom lip began to tremble. I didn’t want her to cry in the crazy hospital, for fear they’d never let her leave” (440). Though a psychiatric hospital helped—and released—Audrey, Henry continues to fear that people will not be able to leave and, therefore, believes that people do not have agency in these facilities.

To wrap up my review of this book, I gave this book a 4-star rating on Goodreads for its harsh yet real discussion of depression and suicide. I could say so much more about this book because it contains so many themes and plot points worthy of conversation, so it’s definitely a book a recommend for this reason.

180539124. Left Drowning by Jessica Park

After losing both her parents in a house fire, senior college student Blythe McGuire begins to confront her depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Jessica Park’s young adult contemporary Left Drowning. Blythe becomes friends with the Shepherd siblings, including senior Chris Shepherd, and together they work through their dark pasts.

Early in the novel, Blythe recognizes she is and has been feeling depressed, as she admits, “My choice is either get up and deal with the day or stay in bed and spend the next several hours being sucked into the unpleasant and familiar vortex of racing thoughts, panic, depression, and listlessness that has dominated my life for the last four years. Better to get out of bed. As I blink into the dark, I am again hit with how tired I am and how little fight I have in me” (8). However, she inwardly debates whether or not to claim the label “depression”:

“Being outside feels good. Sunshine is supposed to help depression, after all. Not that I would classify myself as depressed. Sure, I have numerous depressive symptoms, but I think that I have good reason. Anyone in my situation would be depressed, right? And the whole concept of depression is…well, depressing. It doesn’t seem to take into account that I may damn well be justified in feeling how I do. So what if I’m often in an apathetic haze and spend half my time drinking until I feel numb? It’s not like I cry all the time. I think back to my psych textbook and grimace as I think how clearly my symptoms match up to the clinical definition.

Fine, fine. I’m depressed. There. I said it.

What I find interesting, at least from a human-interest standpoint, is that while I am painfully aware of my feelings and symptoms, I’m unable to shake them and move forward. I am stagnant, I guess” (18).

However, while her grapple in realizing and claiming mental illness labels is relatable and realistic, Blythe’s “overcoming” of her depression and PTSD is not. Her on-and-off-again romantic interest Chris talks her through and over her mental illness, and while he has his own traumatic past, he is not a mental health professional. Much of his language is suppressive—similar to the “just get over it” message I’ve encountered—as demonstrated in his frequent use of stating, “It’s just pain,” throughout the novel. There is no “just” in pain. On the other hand, I did appreciate the following quote, as he compares depression to a storm:

“That’s how a storm with such power happens; you sense the build and darkness, you prepare as best you can, you do what you can to get through it even as it devastates your entire world. Whatever you do, however much you brace yourself, you will still be caught up in forces that you cannot control. So the question is how to navigate through the chaos. It takes thought, and trust, and serenity” (156-167).

Again, though, his statement still contains the underlying “just get over it” message, as he believes Blythe can always “navigate” through her depression, when in reality, mental illness is not something that can always be controlled.

On Goodreads, I gave this book a 3-star rating (which honestly was generous, as it could have been a 2-star rating) because, while I had an enjoyable time reading it, there were areas of concern, including its representation of depression and PTSD.

184603925. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Last, in All the Bright Places by Jennifer Nevin, seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on top of their high school, standing on the ledge, ready to do the same thing: jump. Other than that, Finch and Violet are extremely different. While his counselor believes Finch to have manic depression, Violet is still grieving the loss of her sister and depressed. Finch’s parents are divorced and barely pay attention to him and his two sisters, while Violet’s parents are very involved and concerned with her life and choices. Finch is labeled “Freak” at school, while Violet is popular. Despite their differences, when they pair up for a school project to visit places of wonder in their home state, they both become significant and life-changing to the other.

Similar to Aza in Turtles All the Way Down, Finch’s mental illness becomes more and more difficult to maintain and hide over the course of the novel, which is reflected in the decline of how he describes his mental health:

  • “I feel the rush and then some—I feel everything around me and in me, the road and my blood and my heart beating up into my throat, and I could end right now, in a valiant acclamation of crushed metal and explosive fire. I slam the gas harder, and now I can’t stop because I am faster than anything on earth. The only thing that matters is the forward thrust and the way I feel as I hurtle toward the Great Manifesto” (57).
  • “It’s like my brain is firing so fast that it can’t keep up with itself. Words. Colors. Sounds. Sometimes everything else fades into the background and all I’m left with is sound. I can hear everything, but not just hear it—I can feel it too. But then it can come on all at once—the sounds turn into light, and the light goes too bright, and it’s like it’s slicing me in two, and then comes the headache. But it’s not just a headache I feel, I can see it, like it’s made up of a million colors, all of them blinding. When I tried to describe it to Kate once, she said, ‘You can thank Dad for that. Maybe if he hadn’t used your head as a punching bag.’ But that’s not it. I like to think that the colors and sounds and words have nothing to do with him, that they’re all me and my own brilliant, complicated, buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, godlike brain” (139).
  • “It’s hard to describe, but I imagine the way I am at this moment is a lot like getting sucked into a vortex. Everything dark and churning, but slow churning instead of fast, and this great weight pulling you down, like it’s attached to your feet even if you can’t see it. I think, This is what it must feel like to be trapped in quicksand” (267).
  • “No one notices that I am busy thinking. We eat in silence, and afterward, I find the sleeping pills in my mom’s medicine cabinet. I take the whole bottle back to my room and drop half the contents down my throat and then, in the bathroom, bend over the sink, washing them down. […] It’s this haze of blackness that settles over me, like a fog, only darker. My body is pressed down by the black and the fog, into the floor. There’s no acclamation here. This is what it feels like to be asleep” (278).
  • “‘Kind of black, sinking moods. I imagine it’s what being in the eye of a tornado would be like, all calm and blinding at the same time. I hate them’” (294).
  • “I am in pieces” (297).

However, there has been controversy within the BookTube community surrounding this portrayal for romanticizing depression. For instance, Hailey from HaileyinBookland provided the following review on Goodreads:

“This book has been bothering me for a while in all honesty. I thought I loved it when I first read it, I really did, but honestly I think I was caught up in all the hype. What Raeleen (padfootandprongs07 on YouTube) said has really stuck with me: the characters become their illness. And while depression really is all consuming and can make you feel like you’re made up of not molecules but sadness, I feel that a book about depression should show that there is more to people than their illness. It makes me sad that these characters were defined by their illness and the adults in this book didn’t give a flying fuck about what was going on with them. This book does not do a good job of portraying mental illness as it gives no hope and leaves the reader with a false image of a depressed person being nothing more than their depression. For this reason, I’m lowering my rating once again. I previously had lowered it from a 5 star to a 4 star but now I’m lowering it all the way to a 1.5 star. I may do a video regarding this later. I just got too caught up in the hype and was seeing a beautiful story when really, what was making it beautiful was the romanticizing of mental illness and depression. It irks me more the more I think about it and honestly thanks to Raeleen and her review for opening my eyes to what really was underlying the message of this book.”

Though I found fault in the portrayal of mental illness (which I’ll talk about in a bit), I did not find this book to romanticize mental illness. Rather, I found its representation to be harshly realistic. Just as discussed in Turtles All the Way Down, mental illness feels like an all-consuming spiral. While this was understood within the BookTube community regarding Aza, I find it interesting the same is not understood of Finch. Aza had no hobbies. Finch, on the other hand, wrote songs. He played guitar. But he was in the spiral throughout the novel, and that was his and the reader’s focus.

Another topic carried throughout the novel is the labels and stigma associated with mental illness. For instance, Finch recognizes how mental health is viewed differently than physical health:

“The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explained flu kind of way. It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went blank. One minute I was spinning, and the next minute my mind was dragging itself around in a circle, like an old, arthritic dog trying to lie down. And then I just turned off and went to sleep, but not sleep in the way you do every night. Think a long, dark sleep where you don’t dream at all” (15-6).

However, after Finch’s high school counselor suggests that he is has bipolar disorder, or manic depression, Finch questions this label and how others could and would perceive him because of it:

  • “The thing I know about bipolar disorder is that it’s a label. One you give crazy people. I know this because I’ve taken junior-year psychology and I’ve seen movies and I’ve watched my father in action for almost eighteen years, even though you could never slap a label on him because he would kill you. Labels like ‘bipolar say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses” (271-2)
  • “A string of thoughts runs through my head like a song I can’t get rid of, over and over in the same order: I am broken. I am a fraud. I am impossible to love. It’s only a matter of time until Violet figures it out. You warned her. What does she want from you? You told her how it was. Bipolar disorder, my mind says, labeling itself. Bipolar, bipolar, bipolar” (277-8)
  • “ I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood. I want to get away from all the labels. ‘I’m OCD,’ ‘I’m depressed,’ ‘I’m a cutter,’ they say, like these are the things that define them. One poor bastard is ADHD, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and on top of it all has some sort of anxiety disorder. I don’t even know what BPD stands for. I’m the only one who is just Theodore Finch” (284-5)

Towards the end of the novel, though, Finch firmly communicates to Violet that he is not defined by any diagnosis/label/stigma (which is ironic, as the controversy on BookTube stems from concern with his character being defined by his mental illness):

“‘Listen, I’m the freak. I’m the weirdo. I’m the troublemaker. I start fights. I let people down. Don’t make Finch mad, whatever you do. Oh, there he goes again, in one of his moods. Moody Finch. Angry Finch. Unpredictable Finch. Crazy Finch. But I’m not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I’m a person’” (307).

In the extra content at the back of the novel, Jennifer Niven explains why discussing mental illness labels and their stigma was an important theme for her to include in the book:

“In All the Bright Places, Finch worries a lot about labels. There is, unfortunately, a good deal of stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. When my great-grandfather died, people gossiped. Although his widow and his three children never spoke about what happened that day, they felt silently judged and, to some extent, ostracized. I lost my friend to suicide a year before I lost my father to cancer. They were both ill at the same time, and they died within fourteen months of each other, but the reaction to their illnesses and deaths could not have been more different. People rarely bring flowers to a suicide” (381-382).

While words hold power, and while mental illness labels have been valuable for me, at the same time, they also carry stigma. It’s the reason why I don’t share all of my “thought spirals.” By addressing this stigma, Niven demonstrates how the power of words can be misused.

The themes of guilt and responsibility concerning suicide are also present within the novel but, somewhat similarly to We Are the Ants, guilt and responsibility are—not only in relation to friends, family, etc. of a person who died by suicide—but in relation to the person who died by suicide. In this case, Finch himself and people in his life claim him responsible:

  • “‘The thing suicides don’t focus on is their wake. Not just your parents and siblings, but your friends, your girlfriends, your classmates, your teachers.’ I like the way [Mr. Embry] seems to think I have many, many people depending on me, including not just one but multiple girlfriends” (14).
  • “You can’t stop people from dying. You can’t stop them from going away. You can’t stop yourself from going away either. I know myself well enough to know that no one else can keep you awake or keep you from sleeping. That’s all on me too. But man, I like this girl” (139-140).
  • “‘You deserve better. I can’t promise you I’ll stay around, not because I don’t want to. It’s hard to explain. I’m a fuckup. I’m broken, and no one can fix it. I’ve tried. I’m still trying. I can’t love anyone because it’s not fair to anyone who loves me back’” (227).

Like in We Are the Ants, these themes suggest a third: selfishness. For this reason, I think this portrayal can be harmful.

I mentioned that I found fault with this book’s portrayal of mental illness, just not in the way that others within the BookTube community discussed, so my last point in my review of this book is that it provides no hope for people with mental illness. To sum it up best, throughout the novel, Finch reflects on watching a cardinal fly into his family’s house over and over as a child until it died. The cardinal clearly represents Finch, and it foreshadows Finch’s death by suicide. Finch says, “I couldn’t stop the cardinal’s death, and this made me feel responsible. In a way, I was—we were, my family and I—because it was our house that was built where his tree used to be, the one he was trying to get back to. But maybe no one could have stopped it” (314). This last line epitomizes the harm of this book: it suggests that mental illness—and suicide—cannot be controlled. It cannot be “stopped” by anyone. People with mental illness and the people in their life are helpless. To compare it with Turtles All the Way Down again, Aza’s mental illness is depicted as a journey with ups and downs, while Finch’s mental illness is depicted as a shortened journey with a certain end. This is a destructive message.

Finally, I gave this book a 3-star rating on Goodreads, as it was both helpful and harmful in its portrayal of mental illness, though it’s not a book that I would recommend.

What are other BookTubers saying about these books?

Okay, now what is my big takeaway?

Criticizing how mental illness is represented in young adult books is not a new discussion within the BookTube community—but as our society becomes more aware of our rhetorical power and the words we use—more BookTube videos surrounding mental illness are needed to continue the conversation as we progress. For instance, I learned through this project that “death by suicide” is preferred; “committed suicide” is harmful, as the word “commit” has connotations with crime, as in “committed a crime.” (I found the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention’s Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide helpful!)

If you made it to the end of this, you are a gem, and thank you for caring about this topic.

Comment with your thoughts on these books and the portrayal of mental health and illness within young adult books, and check out my next (and much more brief) blog post that continues the conversation! 🖤

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3 thoughts on “Mental Illness in Young Adult Books

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