With May coming to an end, and with it Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided to make my final discussion post this month about why it’s important to show mental illness and topics related to mental health in books. I’m going to focus mainly on how these types of books have helped me personally, but I’d love if you all added other ways these books could be helpful in the comments (whether based on personal experience or not).
I’ve always loved and appreciated books that deal with tough topics, like mental illness, abuse, or rape. These things so often go unspoken in our society that it makes those who have experienced them isolate themselves and bottle up all of their pain. It makes them hesitant or scared to reach out and get help. It makes them suffer more than they need to.
I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety since I was in 7th grade (I’m 21 now), but never really acknowledged that I was dealing with those things until I was 20. I just started seeing a therapist and getting help in February – almost a decade after I first started experiencing problems with my mental health. It’s always been incredibly difficult for me to admit, both to myself and others, that I’m depressed and anxious (I won’t go into all the different reasons why because this post would end up being a novel). But books that showed characters who were depressed or had anxiety were (and still are) an immense comfort to me.
When I was in middle school and high school, I devoured books that dealt with mental illness. They helped me understand what it was that I was experiencing. They helped me realize that I wasn’t making it up and that there are other people – fictional and real – who deal with the same things I do. They helped me feel less broken, even when I didn’t feel brave enough to tell anyone how much I was struggling.
Anyone who thinks that it’s unimportant to show mental illness in media, whether it be in books, TV shows, or movies, has quite simply never felt alone or abnormal because of mental illness. Having representation of mentally ill characters is immensely important. It can help others understand what they are experiencing and help them know they aren’t alone in experiencing these things, like books with mentally ill characters did for me. By showing characters who struggle with mental health issues, we can help create a dialogue around mental health that will, in turn, help people open up and reach out to get the treatment they need and deserve.
Even if you are not experiencing your own mental health issues, these books can still be incredibly helpful and important. They can help you get a glimpse of what it’s like to live with mental illness (especially #ownvoices books). Reading these books can help you empathize with people who are going through these things, which can help you support anyone you know who may need it. They help open the dialogue so that even if you are not personally experiencing it, you can learn about it and have a less stigmatized and stereotypical view of what it’s like to be mentally ill.
My hope is that books continue to explore what it’s like to live with mental illness. Depression and eating disorders seem to be fairly well-represented in YA (and I hope they continue to be), but I’d love to see more books with characters with other mental illnesses as well so that teens (and anyone else) can see characters who are like them and find comfort and understanding in books the way that I have.