Disturbed, nuts, freak, psycho, spastic, crazy, mental. These labels are used by young adults to stigmatise people with mental illness and they demonstrate a lack of understanding of illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Too often, people use the term ‘OCD’ as a catch-all for someone who is attentive to detail or they refer to someone who frequently changes their mind as ‘bipolar’.
Although we like to think that in recent years we have progressed in our understanding of mental illness and have moved beyond stereotypes, the truth is we still have a long way to go. Mental health is crucial to our overall health. It is impossible to separate the two and yet we do this all the time.
Over the last decade and more so over the last few years, there have been many more YA novels that explore the topic of mental illness. It has always been there, in part because writing about adolescents in any capacity means exploring a social group with a cocktail of hormones that causes them tremendous physical, emotional, intellectual, and mental changes in a short time frame. But mental health as a topic in YA literature has seen an increase as the category of books has grown, too.
There are novels about addiction, eating disorders, depression, schizophrenia, relationship abuse, and more as experienced by the teenage main characters or those close to them who struggle with their mental health. This is a reality of teen life today.
A look at the top Young Adult Fiction for 2019 shows books dealing with racism, parental approval, abusive relationships, feminism, and mental health, all in the top 20 novels.
Young adults are aware of sensitive topics and reading about them in fiction is a way of dealing with them and the fact that mental health problems among teenagers have hugely increased, and also recognising that the issues they face and the feelings they have are not unusual and they are not alone.
Holly Bourne is an English writer who has become known for writing teen fiction that focuses on mental health with the aim of reducing the stigma around mental health problems. Bourne explains that she tries to remain brutally honest in her writing, particularly about issues that she thinks people are not confronting.
“I believe in the power of fiction, that the right book at the right time can change, or even save someone’s life,” Bourne explains.
These books not only make those that may experience mental illness feel like they are not alone but they help those on the outside develop empathy.
Readers gain a level of understanding of how others may be feeling, or why they behave a certain way. The world of literature encourages us to become others in imagination, and this may be a means of improving one’s ability in the social domain.
Focusing on characters with a mental illness addresses the call for culturally relevant literature and helps young adults understand themselves, society, and others around them.