Issues of mental health are tricky enough to understand in life; to capture them well in literature can be nearly impossible. It’s far too easy to get caught up in stereotypes, misinformation, and stigmatization. But when a book does get it right, it can be a literal lifesaver.
Literature with teen protagonists suffering from mental illness has a pretty fine history—books like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger have been capturing the pain and complexity of adolescent mental illness for decades. But as psychological and medical advancements and new editions of the DSM help us further understand, categorize, and treat different issues, so too has YA evolved to reflect that. Of course, there are infinite presentations of mental illness, and no single title can adequately encapsulate the variety of anyone’s experience. But here are eight titles that contain the kind of thoughtful, realistic, empathetic depiction that just might help you or someone you know.
OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu
Don’t be fooled by the adorable cover; this book may have its sweet moments and a love story you’ll root for, but it’s one of the most difficult reads I’ve encountered in YA. It’s also one of the most rewarding. And though it isn’t something you’ll read in one sitting, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be returning to it over and over for months, in your brain if not in practice. Bea and Beck have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and not in the overused joking way where you just like things really clean. Haydu’s writing is a real, raw exploration of what it means to suffer from an anxiety disorder and how it affects both your relationships in the long term and your everyday existence.
Wild Awake, by Hilary T. Smith
Kiri is a music prodigy with a summer of freedom ahead of her, a huge competition to prepare for, and a potential romance with her best friend to pursue…until she gets a phone call about her dead sister that sets her on a new, uncontrollable path. Smith has masterfully crafted Kiri’s downward spiral and intensely growing obsession, and the journey back into self-awareness is a slow and painful and beautiful one to watch. Definitely a worthwhile read that’ll stick with you long after the final page.
Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets, by Evan Roskos
There’s something deceptively light and quirky about James, the anxious, depressed, Walt Whitman-loving narrator of Roskos’ Morris Award-nomated debut, and it hits extra hard when you realize what a gift this book can be for someone who needs it. Rife with humor, pain, and introspection, this book left me wanting to hug everyone I knew, and even some people I didn’t. Just in case.
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Despite being extremely prevalent, especially among teenage girls, eating disorders are extremely difficult to cover well in fiction. Too often, it’s crafted with the implication that the love of the right partner or something of that ilk can will it away, when the truth is that for a great many, it’s a disorder that lasts forever, mentally if not physically. Wintergirls, by the contemporary YA powerhouse that also gave the world Speak, is generally considered to be the book that gets it right. Anderson is a beautiful but brutal and unflinching writer, and this is a prime example of why we are better off for it.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini
What I love so much about Vizzini’s story (besides the fact that it is, indeed, kind of funny) is the way Craig’s checking himself in to a mental hospital for treatment of his depression feels like an act of self-empowerment, exactly as working toward improving your mental health should. Though the author himself sadly lost his battle with depression in 2013, this is a book with the power to keep many teens going.
Crazy, by Amy Reed
Told through a series of e-mails and instant messaging conversations, on the surface this book almost reads like the story of a guy and girl’s toxic friendship. But both the reader and Connor progressively realize that Izzy’s not operating with neurotypical brain chemistry, and what results is a startlingly realistic look at bipolar disorder that’s certain to hit very close to home for those who have it or have people in their lives who do.
The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart
Lockhart might be best known for her standout feminist YA, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but this series of hers comprises four of my favorite underrated books in the contemporary genre. Lockhart takes you through heroine Ruby Oliver’s tumultuous high school experience, including plenty of friend and boyfriend drama, the anxiety and panic attacks they cause, and the therapy sessions they necessitate. It’s one of the most authentic, realistic portrayals of being an adolescent teenage girl I’ve read, to the point I wish I had one of my own to pass all four books down to.
Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield
A tough, raw read about a girl named Kendra who’s been abused and lives in perpetual fear of the act being repeated. Kendra’s coping mechanisms include therapy, art, self-harm, and a budding romance with her classmate Meghan. Rainfield deftly handles these myriad issues with the grace of someone who’s been there before…because she has, and it shows in the care and authenticity she puts in to this heavy story of survival and recovery.
What is your favorite YA involving characters who struggle with mental illness?