In a world where appearances can be deceiving, some teenagers put on a mask to fit in. They pretend that they have the world figured out, when on the inside they may feel more alone than they let on. There are also other teens who are not well-informed on situations and might bully someone based off of something that they do not fully understand.
I wanted to explore books that could relate to teenagers with mental health conditions and could also teach others who don’t have mental illnesses what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. The books that I read explore different mental illnesses that affect the teens and preteens in their daily lives. Some cases were smaller, while others affected the characters’ lives more. The books that I read focused on teens with depression, Asperger’s syndrome, different forms of anxiety, and PTSD. Each book gave a viewpoint that felt both relatable to young adults in similar situations and informative to young adults who do not experience the mental health condition.
About one in five children tend to have a mental illness. It is very common nowadays, yet it is still a sensitive subject to bring up. Mental illness is seen as a “taboo and stigmatized topic,” where “adolescents often deal with it without the support they might have when facing physical illnesses” (Wickham). It is hard to ask for help, especially when you are not receiving support from others.
Emma Newman, author of Planetfall, describes the two types of people who need to see characters with mental illnesses. She explains that the first group “needs this representation so we don’t feel alone” (Newman). The reader can connect well with characters who have similar struggles and mental health conditions. When mental illness is treated as a taboo topic, it makes those with mental health conditions feel more alone. But when it is represented in the media, it helps people feel less alone and know that there are people who want to help support them. Representation in the media also helps with the second group that Emma Newman mentions, which are those who need to understand what it is like to experience mental illness. She also explains that this helps people learn about “genuine empathy” (Newman). If people do not understand what it’s like to have a mental illness, they are less likely to be empathetic towards others with mental illnesses. But with more exposure to characters who experience mental health conditions, people might learn how to be more understanding and empathetic towards mental illnesses. The books listed below all have characters who are all relatable and also teach more about mental illnesses.
Erskine, Kathryn. Mockingbird (mok’ing-burd). New York, Philomel Books, 2010.
Kathryn Erskine’s book, Mockingbird, focuses on a 5th grade girl named Caitlin whose older brother dies in a school shooting. The shooting affects the whole community including Caitlin and her father. Her older brother was the one person who knew how to explain everything to Caitlin in a way that she understands. Caitlin has Asperger’s syndrome, and throughout the book she has trouble learning how to empathize with others on their pain. She struggles with making friends and with trying to help stop her dad’s sadness. But, with the help of her counselor, Caitlin makes much progress throughout the book in learning more about empathy and how to be a good friend to others. When she learns about the word, “closure”, she makes it a mission to find what to do to help her and her father, and even the rest of the community, reach this “closure” that’s supposed to fix the pain in their hearts from the shooting.
This book was a wonderful way to see how someone with Asperger’s syndrome may act. I think that this is a great way for students to learn more about Asperger’s syndrome and autism. It might also be a good book for someone with Asperger’s syndrome to read and relate to the main character or see how they both interact in the world differently. Erskine wrote this book to teach people what life is like for a child with Asperger’s syndrome. I find this important, especially because of a mean comment that a college classmate made in my class last year about another classmate who had Asperger’s syndrome. This book made me discover more about Asperger’s syndrome and watch how Caitlin grew from having no empathy for others nor a want to build relationships up to the end of the novel where she learned to empathize and found a small group of students that she could talk to.
Albertalli, Becky. The Upside of Unrequited. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.
Albertalli’s book was one of my favorites that I read. I related so much to the main character, especially with her fears of not being liked by others and of being replaced by someone better. Molly is a teenager who is afraid of rejection. She has twenty seven crushes from over the years, yet barely even talks to any of them. Her twin sister, on the other hand is confident and could get any guy or girl that she wanted. Cassie has recently gotten a new girlfriend, introduced to her by Molly, and Molly feels like she’s being replaced by the girlfriend. But, Cassie’s girlfriend has a cool hipster friend who shows interest in Molly. Cassie is excited, thinking that Molly and the hipster guy will get together and then everyone will stay close. But Molly is unsure on whether or not he actually likes her, because she cannot imagine that someone so cool would like someone that looks like her. And then her coworker comes into the picture, and she starts falling for him too. It’s a big mess.
I like how natural this book comes across. Molly’s anxiety is not one of the main plot points, but it still has a significant role in her personality and how she acts. She openly explains how she takes Zoloft every morning. Instead of letting this tiny detail get lost, Molly mentions it each morning in the book as she takes it in a very casual way. Her thoughts in the book sometimes show her anxieties about how she thinks others view her, which is relevant even in a normal high school student’s mind when they worry about how they look in front of others. Body image comes up a lot in the book, because Molly is a lot bigger than Cassie and was bullied in school and by her grandmother because of it. Some of her anxieties also come from previous experiences of boys making fun of her weight. The book also touches on a lot of diverse topics that are relevant in today’s modern society. Molly and Cassie are sperm babies with two moms. There are also a lot of talks about being a virgin and feeling like the only one when others act like they’ve experienced a lot more. Racial remarks are also brought up through Cassie and Molly’s slightly racist grandmother and through outsiders looking in at a family with one white mom and one black mom. I found this to be a really eye-opening book that I would love to read again.
Schutz, Samantha. I Don’t Want to Be Crazy. New York, Scholastic Inc, 2006.
This book is a memoir about Samantha’s journey during college with anxiety. The book is written in a poetry format, explaining her anxiety attacks in the middle of classes and semesters abroad and how she copes with it. Samantha doesn’t have steady relationships with guys and doesn’t really find her niche of friends until the end of freshman year. Her friends didn’t always understand why she acted very mysterious and closed until sophomore year when they spent more one-on-one time with her. She found that her friends were the best way to help calm her down during anxiety attacks, and even found a friend with similar attacks that she could then help. The book is filled with ups and downs as Samantha learns to control her anxiety attacks until it gets out of control again.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for younger readers. This would maybe be a book for seniors in high school, and even then, I would use it with caution. The book was very depressing at certain moments, especially with it being real experiences for the author. It is a great wake-up call for a serious form of anxiety, since the author would experience attacks almost twice a day in classes. It shows how sometimes college becomes stressful enough to cause anxiety, but it might cause students to be more wary of going based on her experiences. It is a really good book though if someone can relate to her experiences or if they are wanting to learn about more extreme cases of anxiety. There is also a lot of resources in back of the book to help those who are struggling and want to ask for help. I would use certain selections in this book to teach a 12th grade class instead of the whole book and warn them of triggers in the book before starting the unit. This book focuses a lot more on the author’s anxiety instead of it being a side plot, unlike some of the other books in this list.
Vizzini, Ned. It’s Kind of a Funny Story. New York, Hyperion, 2015.
High schooler Craig Gilner has been studying all of his life to get into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School. Earning a place in this school means that you basically have it made to having a highly successful career in life after going to a good college. Craig scores a perfect score on the entrance exam, securing himself a spot in the elite school. But soon he realizes that the school is a lot more challenging than he expected. He starts feeling very depressed to the point where he can’t eat or sleep normally. Craig goes through multiple therapists until he starts feeling better. Once he reaches that point, Craig stops taking his medicine and seeing his latest therapist. But eventually Craig’s depression comes back, and he decides that he can no longer live with it. He nearly kills himself before calling for help. He checks himself into a mental hospital, where he meets others with mental illnesses struggling to also get better. While living here, Craig discovers the causes of his depression and anxiety. He also learns how to combat those causes in order to prepare himself for the world after he leaves.
This book gives a more positive view on depression. It also gives many resources on how someone can look for help if they are feeling suicidal. Ned Vizzini started writing this book shortly after checking out of a psychiatric hospital. His experience was very similar to Craig’s, which helps gives a realistic feeling to the writing.
Reilly, K.J. Words We Don’t Say. New York, Hyperion, 2018.
Joel Higgins is still grieving over losing his best friend last year. He has 901 saved texts on his phone addressed to his best friend, his crush, and his principal that he has been unable to press send to. Junior year of high school requires him to do community service at a soup kitchen with his crush, Eli, and the new student, Benj. Eli is known for trying to solve every problem and having a list for everything. Benj is known to say odd things at odd times that annoy Joel, but eventually they become comrades. At the soup kitchen, Joel also meets Rooster. Rooster is a veteran who doesn’t speak to anyone. Joel stumbles across Rooster’s home one day and is determined to help Rooster in any way after seeing how bad it looked. This begins his many trips of snacks and socks up to Rooster’s shack in the woods. Through this book, Joel learns how to cope with the loss of his best friend and how find solutions to all of the problems around him.
This book deals a lot with PTSD. Many veterans end up at the soup kitchen each Wednesday night. Joel learns through other veterans’ stories on how hard life becomes when they return from war. Through those stories, Joel starts suspecting that he might also have PTSD from “the thing that happened.” Eventually, he finds a way to receive closure for him and his friends.
Newman, Emma. “Why It’s Important to Write About Mental Health in Fiction.” Read It Forward, Penguin Random House, 21 Apr. 2019, http://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/mental-health-in-fiction/.
Wickham, Anastasia. “It Is All in Your Head: Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature – Wickham – 2018 – The Journal of Popular Culture – Wiley Online Library.” The Journal of Popular Culture, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 25 Jan. 2018, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jpcu.12641.