Mental illness is a hard subject to talk about in real life, so of course it’s a tough topic to tackle in books. While there are many books on mental illness, there are so many different illnesses to cover and only a few books on each. Every person experiences mental illnesses differently, so it can be incredibly challenging to find a book that matches each person. Mental illnesses are still widely misunderstood and therefore the people who have them are often misunderstood and mistreated.
This has been the case for as long as humans have acknowledged that mental illnesses exist. Historically, mental hospitals or asylums were notorious for how horrific they were. People could be locked up for being disobedient or difficult to their families, particularly women. People could also be locked up for being gay since it was considered a mental problem. Once in the hospitals, patients were frequently mistreated – abused, malnourished, neglected. Some were experimented on in highly questionable ways and some of the supposed therapies, like electric shock therapy, killed people. There are a handful of YA books that touch on the dangers of such asylums – Iron Cast by Destiny Soria and Wildthorn by Jane Eagland – but there’s still so much more to explore as far as mental illness before contemporary times is portrayed.
Today, there are plenty of other, safer options for those with mental illnesses, but the subject is still largely glossed over in YA books. Rarely do readers see the difficulties of getting a diagnosis and finding out the best treatment method. In reality, just getting a doctor who you can afford and actually make an appointment with to get a diagnosis and start a treatment plan can be tremendously difficult. Then there’s the challenge of finding the right treatment, which can take years. Some YA books approach getting help for mental illness by portraying an extreme breakdown leading to a mental hospital where the main character is forced to get immediate help, but that’s not the case for most people.
We need more YA books that feature main characters with mental illnesses, but we need ones that truly do justice to what it’s like. It’s never going to be exactly the same for any two people, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be accurate depictions in YA stories. Teens who go to therapy, but it’s just part of their weekly routine. Teens who take medications without thinking about it and those medications don’t turn them into emotionless robots. Teens who aren’t getting help professionally, but are finding ways to cope anyway. Mental illness portrayal in YA books doesn’t have to be about the big things – breakdowns and extreme reactions or lows. It would be better for teens if they were about the little things, to help teens understand what it’s really like and maybe even to realize what they’re experiencing and how their brain works might be more than they think.
As the stigma around mental illness very slowly fades, more and more people are being diagnosed and treated because they recognize the symptoms and feel safe getting help; part of the struggle in finding a doctor who can treat you is that so many can’t take new patients. But allowing teens to see accurate portrayals in YA books can help them seek help at a younger age and – potentially – save lives.