I remember vividly days when my middle school teachers would escort my class to the computer lab full of already obsolete desktops to research careers. On one particular assignment, we were tasked with using proper research techniques and appropriate documentation to find three possible careers we might one day pursue. One career was always on my list, but as serendipity would have it, the profession I actually chose to dedicate my life to never appeared among my choices. The job that did frequent these assignment was therapist, counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Though the exact title often varied, I thought from fairly early on that I wanted to work in the mental health field. Instead, I chose to enter the field of education and become an English teacher. While I have loved every minute of my time in the classroom, I’m still drawn to issues related to mental illness and wellness.
As part of my current research focus for the Doctor of Arts in English Pedagogy program at Murray State University, I am combining my love of literature, specifically young-adult literature (YAL), with mental health. YAL allows me to remember my childhood nostalgically, while also being reminded of modern beliefs and values, pushing me to see the merits of these kinds of works in the education setting. Putting YAL in teens’ hands has revived a love of reading for a number of young people. On this blog, I will look at a number of examples of YA novels and discuss how they can serve as a catalyst to talk about issues related to mental health. Students should have access to young-adult literature that is treated with similar reverence as the classics are often given. YA works can sometimes serve students better, in fact, on issues of mental illness and mental wellness. It can be groundbreaking for a student to see themselves in characters dealing with similar issues they live with daily. Teenagers are certainly no strangers to issues surrounding mental health, but discussing these sorts of problems are often problematic at best. Whether it’s screamed at them somewhere along the 24-hour news cycle or deliberately calculated through algorithms on their smartphones, real and far-reaching stories dealing with mental health barrage teenagers on a daily basis. Certainly, access to young-adult literature and a good teacher can serve teenagers better than sorting through similar experiences on their own.
For the purposes of my work, I am adopting certain definitions and classifications as communicated in Kia Jane Richmond’s book Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles Through Fictional Characters. In her work, she credits Michael Cart, writing on behalf of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), with articulating a definition of YAL. As such, young-adult literature is “inherently amorphous, for its constituent terms ‘young adult’ and ‘literature’ are dynamic, changing as culture and society—which provide their context—change” (qtd. in Richmond 1). Further, Richmond combines another definition with Cart’s to create a fuller categorization of the grouping. Crediting Chris Crowe’s work in the field, Richmond notes that YAL encompasses all genres of literature published in 1967 onward that are specifically written for and marketed to youth. Experts rely on the year 1967 since it’s the year S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a work specifically marketed toward adolescents, was published.
Recalling Cart again, Richmond reminisces the benefits of YAL as including works that can foster “understanding, empathy, and compassion by offering vividly realized portraits of the lives—exterior and interior—of individuals who are unlike the reader” (qtd. in Richmond 1-2). Richmond continues by noting Cart’s argument that YAL can afford young adults the abilities of “finding role models, making sense of their world, developing personal philosophies of being, and determining right and wrong” (2).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of US children ages 2-17, approximately 6.1 million (9.4%) have a diagnosis of ADHD; about 4.5 million (7.4%) are diagnosed with a behavior problem; roughly 4.4 million (7.1%) carry an anxiety diagnosis; and around 1.9 million (3.2%) are diagnosed with depression. Those numbers are staggering. Now, imagine even one-fourth of those with a disorder never receiving any kind of intervention or support. This also negates the number of teens who experience issues of mental wellness that have not grown into a diagnosable mental health disorder, allowing supports like those found in young-adult literature to truly make a difference.
In “It Is All in Your Head: Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature,” Anastasia Wickham notes, “The recent treatment of mentally ill characters in popular YA novels confronts the stigma of mental illness and illustrates a road to interdependence, inclusion, agency, and empowerment that is often obscured.” Students need to see accurate representations of mental illness, examples they can not only identify with but ones that offer hope, solace, and understanding to their condition.
Young-adult literature doesn’t only make up a teacher’s toolbox, however. YAL has also been identified as a set of useful tools for mental health professionals. Richmond mentions the concept of bibliotherapy, which is when mental health professionals use literature as a way to help patients cope with issues surrounding their mental wellness. It’s easy to understand why education is often seen as a village effort, requiring effort from educators, parents, business leaders, community members, and the students themselves. Helping students navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence is in the best interests of all those who strive for a brighter future, as the students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.
“Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 June 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.
Richmond, Kia Jane. Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles Through Fictional Characters, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/murraystate/detail.action?docID=5597794.
Wickham, Anastasia. “It Is All in Your Head: Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 51, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 10–25. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jpcu.12641.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some of the works contained on this blog could be considered too graphic or extreme for some readers. Caution is advised.