Suffering from a mental illness is a terrifying experience. To the outside world, it seems trivial, harmless and invisible, but to those of us suffering, it’s anything but. And it isn’t just an illness of the mind – It can cause all kinds of physical effects too. 1 in 5 Young People are now being diagnosed with some form of mental health problems, from generalised anxiety and depression, to eating disorders and schizophrenia, and there’s no one-size-fits-all guide to what to expect from these illnesses. Stigma and misunderstanding, confusion and fear, are all rife when it comes to understanding mental illnesses, and I’ve always found that the best way to understand something is to read about people in down to Earth, sensitive and respectable Fiction and Biographical accounts. So as last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought I’d throw together a list of fantastic YA and Teen Fiction titles that either deal with, or have characters who suffer from, mental health problems. Many of these have helped me in the past, and I’d love to know that they’ll go on to help others. People with these illnesses aren’t monsters – they’re not crazy, dangerous lunatics – they’re people struggling with an invisible, but deadly disease.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Themes – Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Eating Disorders, Anxiety
Inspired by the author’s own experiences of hospitalisation for depression, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a brilliant mix of genuinely sharp humour and honest, heartfelt emotion that absolutely buzzes in the words he writes. Vizzini’s tragic death at just 32 years old makes the impact of these book painfully real.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Themes – Depression, Suicide, Identity
The quintessential book when it comes to main characters with depression, Plath’s only novel is beautifully haunting and poetic and while it’s dated in some ways, the feelings at the heart of it remain as current and relatable as ever. The book touches on how the pressures of adult life can weigh heavily on young people, and ultimately has a hopeful tone to it.
All Of The Above by Juno Dawson
Themes – Eating Disorders, Self-Harm
Juno’s first contemporary novel is by far her most diverse, intelligent and emotionally articulate offering to date. It examines the stresses and pressures that teenagers and young people go through in a chaotic, messy and heartfelt way, never pulling any punches, but always holding your hand, it looks at how people can hide things about themselves and how there is no definitive normal.
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Themes – Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Self-Harm
A wonderful, heart stopping, devastating and uplifting book, All the Bright Places is a beautiful tale of friendship and love told alongside some dark, complex themes, all in a sensitive and intelligent way. The words crackle with energy on the page, and the characters are wonderfully real and relatable.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Themes – OCD, Depression, Eating Disorders
Not out until later this year, but I can already tell you that Patrick Ness continues to be one of the finest YA writers working today. In The Rest of Us, our narrator Mikey suffers from near crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, frequently washing his hands until they bleed. Patrick paints his own self-loathing honestly, tackling the concept that OCD is synonymous with being neat head on with a sledgehammer of truth. He also touches on eating disorders with a secondary character, and really captures the helplessness and hopelessness that sufferers of these illnesses can feel.
When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan
Themes – Tourette’s Syndrome, Bullying
Shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction, When Mr. Dog Bites is one of the very very few books out there that looks at what it means to live with Tourette’s Syndrome, an often over looked and woefully misunderstood illness. Naturally, it’s rude and funny in places, but it’s also it bristles with an honest energy and has a brilliantly open and genuinely well-intentioned main character.
Solitaire by Alice Oseman
Themes – Depression, Suicide, Eating Disorders
Alice’s debut novel is one of my favourite YA books of all time, and her drive to be inclusive is what makes her book stand out so well. Tory’s brother, Charlie, suffers from a number of mental health problems, highlighting that these things often aren’t as simple as the media makes them out to be. His anorexia is sensitively handled and I feel like having a male character suffer from an eating disorder is so important to have in fiction, and his relationship with his sister is absolutely wonderful. He’s a sensitive, intelligent young person who struggles with the harshness of the world, and Alice never lets him become a stereotype.
Heroic by Phil Earle
Themes – PTSD
Phil Earle is one of the best unsung writers in Teen and YA literature, purely because of just how well he manages to capture the anger and confusion of teen life. Heroic is looks at friendship, the relationships between brothers and the dark and upsetting effects Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have, not just of sufferers, but on their families too. This book is hauntingly real and gritty, but from there is its power, to overcome the darkness of the everyday and reach the light that we can find in each other. His characters are brilliantly created, snappy and intelligent, and by writing from two perspectives, we get a fully layered and complex look at a harrowing condition.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Themes – Suicide, PTSD
Without any spoilers, I will just say that Perks is one of my favourite ever books ever ever. It made a huge difference for me in my life, and Charlie is the music obsessed, shy and sensitive young man I needed to read about. It’s a book that teaches that it’s okay to be who you are, that gender stereotypes are dumb, and that through each other, we can overcome even the most horrifying events. The way Stephen Chbosky flashes back through Charlie’s life in this book is haunting and gripping all at once.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Themes – Social Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder
Fangirl is a sweet story of love, friendship and coming of age that also works in an underexplored and worryingly misunderstood condition – social anxiety. In an age where everyone can be in contact with one another without ever actually having to see those people physically, Rainbow works it into Cath’s character without being dismissive or painting it too lightly. She also makes sure that we know it’s okay to be shy, to need space or prefer to be alone, and in doing so, she creates a character that is so easy to relate to, in a sweet novel that’s already becoming a massive bestseller.
Other recommended titles:
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Depression)
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Suicide, Depression)
Panther by David Owen (Depression)
Every Day by David Levithan (Depression)
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green/David Levithan (Depression)
The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle (PTSD)
A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook/Brendan Halpin (Eating Disorders)
Butter by Erin Lange (Eating Disorders)
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Eating Disorders)
Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan (Psychosis)
Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dallaira (Depression)
You can find more on this fab list on Goodreads too.
Part of the best way for us to tackle to misconceptions and stigmas that surround these illnesses is to talk about them, and share our own experiences as well as stories like the ones I’ve talked about here. These books aren’t just for those of us who struggle with these things every single day, they’re also for the people who have never had to cry when they wake up, who don’t know what it’s like to struggle with thoughts and feelings that can’t be controlled, and who can’t put themselves into those lives. Empathy is the key to humanity, and we all need to do our best to understand and care for one another.
Or something like that, anyway. I ain’t a great philosopher, I just read a lot of books.
Obviously, many of these books will contain triggers/upsetting scenes, so please always do some research and never be afraid to stop reading something that’s upsetting you.
If you need someone to talk to, The Samaritans are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to just listen, and never judge.
Thanks for Reading. I hope you find a book that helps.