5 Young Adult books for Mental Health Awareness Week
1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. More than half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood. Worryingly, less than half were treated appropriately at the time.
These statistics highlight that mental health issues are a reality for a lot of young people. Therefore, it’s essential to keep an open dialogue about mental health issues and emphasise that a diagnosis doesn’t define you as a person.
Books provide a safe place for readers to explore difficult issues, build empathy and identify with a characters' experiences
Young Adult fiction can and should play a key role in breaking down those barriers. The pages of a book provide a safe place for readers to explore difficult issues, build empathy and identify with a characters' experiences. That sense of recognition and understanding can provide a crucial turning point in finding the confidence to seek help.
Here are five books I wish I’d been able to read during my teenage years:
Based on Vizzini’s own stint in an adult psychiatric unit, the novel charts the story of Craig Gilner, a troubled teen who checks himself into hospital after facing the brink of despair. Gilner’s captivating voice shines throughout and provides a fascinating insight into the pressures of adolescent life. It’s Kind of a Funny Story also focuses on the present, the act of survival as Craig counts down the days to his release. This approach is hugely refreshing and there’s no glib reliance on sentiments like ‘it gets better.’ Ned Vizzini’s tragic suicide last year makes this novel an even more haunting and essential read.
I was moved and gripped by this book's narrator Seth’s struggle to forge an identity and sense of belonging. Seth’s family were almost ripped apart by a tragedy, and his fractured memories are scattered throughout the text, giving a greater insight into his struggles. In his search for answers, Seth considers whether there is ‘more than this’ life - a concern which will be common to many readers.
Patrick Ness will be talking about More Than This at our Authors Live event on 12 June.
John Green has been accused of ‘glamorising’ difficult issues, but I would argue that his third novel, Paper Towns, approaches mental health in a distinctly unglamorous way. Quentin has been infatuated with his next-door neighbour, Margo, since they were both 9 years old and were involved in a traumatic experience. Margo initially seems like a bit of a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but when she goes missing, Quentin’s search gradually erodes this fantasy version of her. At the end of the novel, Margo cuts a lonely, itinerant figure with no real anchor pulling her home. For me, Margo is a warning against getting lost in a persona and the dangers of isolating yourself.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a hilarious and heart-warming novel told from the alternating perspective of two teens who share the same name. The strongest voice for me is David Levithan’s Will Grayson, a depressed, frustrated character who finds definition in an online love affair. One of the most successful things about Levithan’s narrative is his understanding of the chaos of emotional life: ‘I feel my life is so scattered right now. Like it's all these small pieces of paper and someone's turned on the fan.’ Levithan never shies away from destructive feelings or behaviour, presenting them as frank and relatable issues.
Manning’s heroine Isobel is instantly dislikeable. She is a bully and her behaviour towards her family, friends and love interest, Smith, is downright nasty. Once Smith starts to break down her barriers, the real tragedy of Isobel’s life is revealed and Manning handles it brilliantly. Isobel’s story poignantly explores how acting out can be a much deeper reflection of inner turmoil.
It’s important to recognise that the difficult issues explored in these books aren’t the sum of the characters’ stories. Each one of them experiences the usual worries and preoccupations of a teenager’s life and there is no insistence on categorising what they are going through. Relating to a character won’t take away someone’s problems but if a book can help someone on the road to recovery, then we will be one crucial step closer to removing the stigma surrounding mental health.
Mental Health Awareness Week (12-18 May) seeks to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues.
Discover some more books on the issue with our Understanding Mental Health book list.