John Green, author of Turtles All the Way Down and, of course, The Fault in Our Stars

YA Gets Real and Deals with Mental Health Issues – Part One

And what better time to take stock of this than May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month?

Young Adult fiction is a good barometer of our changing culture. YA fiction exploded in “the mental health space” just as celebrities started talking more openly about their challenges: Kendrick Lamar and Dwayne Johnson (depression), Emma Stone and Prince Harry (anxiety), Lady Gaga (PTSD), and Demi Lovato (bipolar and bulimia). Now we get fictional characters, mostly in high school, who show what the teenage version of that lived experience looks like.

That is not how it used to be. Aside from outlier books like The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger 1951) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 1999), America “back in the day” did not seem anxious to explore the topic in depth.

Many people of all ages experience mental health issues, therefore so do many teens—or they cope with those of parents, siblings, and friends. We can now read their stories, and see life through their eyes – with books readily available at the Niles-Maine District Library.

The conditions which crop up most frequently in these books are depression, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive (OCD), ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, chemical dependency, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia also make appearances. Many well-written novels show young adults coping, sometimes suffering, being resilient, and often flourishing.

Bravo, John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars fame), for writing Turtles All the Way Down. Lead character Aza bravely lives her high school life despite OCD. The plot is multi-layered as she navigates life with her widowed mother, an in-your-face BFF, and her first boyfriend. Along the way, there is a billionaire on the run, goings-on at his uber-rich estate, and the pitfalls of being young and fragile in a chaotic world. The writing is outstanding.

In the “Acknowledgements” section, the reader learns that Green has “skin in the game”: he thanks two doctors for having “made my life immeasurably better by providing the kind of high-quality mental health care that unfortunately remains out of reach for too many.” Which tells us three things at once: Green is brave enough to “out himself,” must have serious issues if treatment cost that much, and wishes society did a better job making treatment accessible.

When people, as admired as Green, reveal themselves, it really puts a dent in the stigma associated with mental health conditions. But plenty of other writers, although not on TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World List” (as Green is), are telling riveting stories with interesting characters living with mental health conditions.

In next week’s blog post (the second of a series of three), we will meet some of these authors’ characters.

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