Mental health seems to have become such a popular topic to address, especially in YA books over the past few years. It is so important for books and authors to represent mental health accurately and sensitively. The problem I often find is that books that deal with mental illness fall into some common and frustrating tropes. The worst one for me is the idea that falling in love completely cures the person of their mental illness. While I can accept that being with someone who loves and supports you can help a person deal with the symptoms and feel better, I have a hard time thinking that falling in love alone could, for example, make a person with schizophrenia stop hearing voices completely (but only when their partner is with them). Luckily, it seems that many authors are becoming much better about portraying the realities of mental illness very well. Below are some of the books I’ve read that I felt portrayed mental illness well (including a couple of potentially controversial choices).
Monthly Recommendations is a Goodreads group created by Kayla Rayne and Trina from Between Chapters. Monthly topics cane be found on the Goodreads page here.
1) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I have never related to a character more strongly that I did to Cath in Fangirl. Cath is a college freshman who has social anxiety, who is a huge fan and popular fanfiction writer for a Harry Potter-type series, along with her twin sister Wren. When the twins start college, Wren decides to separate herself from the fandom and branch out away from her sister, leaving Cath on her own to deal with her first year of college. While I have never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder myself, I am fairly certain I have some kind of social anxiety (although maybe not at a clinical level). Cath’s worries about dealing with new people and new situations at school were definitely above and beyond the usual anxiety about leaving home. For example, she is afraid of eating in the dining hall because she doesn’t know how to get there, what the rules are, and worries about being in other people’s way. I could definitely relate to her preference to stay in and read or write instead of trying to immerse herself in the college’s social life, like everyone else. One of the things I especially loved about this book is that despite making friends and even falling in love, Cath’s anxiety is not magically cured. This was easily one of my favourite books that I read last year.
2) The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
I read this book in the same month last year that I read Fangirl, and it was another excellent portrayal of anxiety that I very strongly related to. This book is about a girl named Molly who is overweight and deals with anxiety. At age 17, Molly has had crushes on 26 boys but has never done anything about her feelings for any of them. Her twin sister, Cassie, tries to help set Molly up with her latest crush, but Molly also might have feelings for her geeky coworker, Reid. I know some people have taken issue with the one-dimensional storyline that focuses almost exclusively on Molly’s love life, but I thought it worked very well. Becky Albertalli is an excellent author who crafts such relatable and realistic characters. One of the things that really stood out to me in this one was Molly’s anxiety in her relationship with her love interest. Like me, Molly has a tendency to overthink everything and jump to conclusions, and there were so many interactions she had that I could easily see myself having as well.
3) Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley
When I first read the synopsis for this book, I was worried about the direction it might take. The book focuses on an overachieving student named Lisa who decides to take on her classmate Solomon, who has not left his house in three years after a very public panic attack, as a “project” to help get her into a psychology program in college. I was very worried that this book would take the harmful approach that someone’s mental illness is something that could be fixed by an amateur, teenage “therapist.” I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the book was actually the opposite of that. Not only was Solomon an excellent character whose agoraphobia was portrayed very well, but this book directly challenged the idea that teens are capable of curing each other. There was an especially powerful scene toward the end of the book that showed how although Lisa and her boyfriend Clark had helped Solomon to a degree, their friendship was not a cure. It was also great to see a YA book where romance was not the focus. The blurb for this one is definitely misleading, but I would highly recommend it.
4) Every Last Word by Tamara Stone Ireland
The main reason I am recommending this book is because of the very positive portrayal of therapy, which is something that seems extremely rare in mental illness stories. In this book, the main character Sam has purely-obsessional OCD, which means she suffers from intrusive thoughts and worries that interfere with her daily life. Sam is also part of the popular crowd at school and has kept her diagnosis secret from her best friends for years out of fear that they might turn against her. I especially enjoyed the early chapters where Sam’s relationship with her friends is explored, and you can see their mean-girl dynamic. It seems to be pretty rare to have the character with a mental illness as part of a popular group, so that was unique in itself. I also hadn’t seen this specific form of OCD represented in other books before. As mentioned above, I also liked how the book focused quite a bit on Sam’s use of therapy and medication as a positive thing to help herself manage, since so many books tend to show these options as either unhelpful or dismissed outright.
5) All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
I know that this one is a controversial choice. I have yet to see any book where a character commits suicide that has not been accused of glorifying it. This book focuses on two main character who meet at the top of their school’s bell tower, both contemplating jumping. Violet is suffering from depression after sister’s recent death, and Finch has undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I can understand some of the issues that people have raised about this book, but I thought it was a very powerful story. I loved the relationship that developed between Violet and Finch, and I especially thought Finch’s bipolar symptoms were represented well. To be clear, this book does not do a good job of showing support for the individuals. The adults around these two do not seem to notice that they are struggling, and Finch actively rejects medication and therapy. I can see where this is problematic for readers, but I also thought it was (unfortunately) very realistic since not everyone is open to the idea that they need help. Given that one of the main characters commits suicide, it is not an uplifting book but I do think it was well written. I actually really enjoyed that there was a book that was not afraid to show the darker side of mental illness since it us (again, unfortunately) a reality.
6) Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Again, a very controversial choice even before the recent #MeToo allegations against Jay Asher. As I’m sure most people are aware by now, this book is about a teenage girl named Hannah Baker who has committed suicide, and who has left behind a series of cassette tapes where she talks about the people and events that led her to her decision. I first read this book about a decade ago when it came out and again last year before the Netflix series, and both times it struck me as a very powerful story. This book has been accused of glorifying Hannah’s suicide as a revenge plot or a way of blaming other people for her actions. On both occasions where I read it, I interpreted it as a book about how even seemingly small actions (or inaction) can have an impact on other people, and we can never truly know what other people are going through. It was easy to see the build-up of several events, some much worse than others, which led up to Hannah’s choice and how it got to a point where it was all just too much. Again, this is not a hopeful or inspiring book, but it is very stark and very real.