Discussing Depression/Suicide in YA Fiction

Hey there everyone! So first off, I’d like to start by saying HAPPY NEW YEAR! I’m super excited to see where God leads me this year and what I’ve got in store for myself as a blogger, reader, and just a person in general.

Also, I’m SUPER glad to be starting the new year with a discussion post by the lovely Nicole from Nicole’s Nine Cents. Nicole is an absolute sweetheart and an amazing person. So today, she’ll be discussing depression/suicide in YA fiction! So without further ado….

I love anything that makes me cry. I know this is probably an odd way to start a post, but I feel that it’s important to establish early on that the harder something hits me, the more my soul feels crushed and my world shattered, the higher the likelihood it’ll win me over.

That being said, I’ve always been drawn to YA novels where the plot is centered around mental illness. It tells the imperfect story of people who, due to the notoriety of the universe being a bitch, are left flawed, because that’s what life is all about. The potential for honesty and grit increases exponentially when you allow characters in novels to be as flawed and imperfect as humans are in real life, and that is where I find the most beauty. Recently, though, I’ve found myself frustrated out of my mind with the YA I fell in love with. Mental illness has become nothing more than an overused, misused, and inaccurate tool for authors to flaw their characters in a way that is unnecessary and counter-intuitive.

The YA Mold is a concept I believe to be true for 98% of novels within the genre (because contrary to popular opinion, I 110% believe YA to be a genre in and of itself). In an effort to not rant about it for pages and pages on end (which I’m notorious for), it’s essentially the idea that what characterizes the genre is not the target audience, but the monotonously similar plotlines that thread throughout each novel. Mental illness centered YA is anything but different–in fact, I’d argue that the only way it differs is its uniformity reaches a breadth of 99% of novels instead of 98. It follows the same basic structure: protagonist is stuck in a vicious self-loathing cycle and the mental illness starts to become his/her most predominant feature, he/she un/willingly seeks help (and in most cases, this “help” is falling in love–as if love can truly heal when in reality it does nothing but reveal), treatment prospects don’t look so great, shit starts to hit the fan as the protagonist hits rock bottom, and finally some life altering event happens within the last several pages that makes the sufferer realize that Life Is Beautiful and It Gets Better and miraculously s/he’s healed! (Phew. That’s a mouthful, huh?)

Now, I understand that novels are supposed to be an Escape From Reality, and a promise that life doesn’t always have to be hard, but when you’re dealing with a topic as raw and real as mental illness, there is no escape from the truth. In real life the road to recovery is not straight. Having a mental illness does not make a person seem more desirable because they’re “broken”–no, in fact it does nothing but push most people away. Sometimes hitting rock bottom can make you realize that yes, life is worth living, but I promise you the road to the top is anything but unidirectional. Recovery is not perfect, and it is not quick; it’s raw, and ugly, and gritty, and hard. As someone who has dealt it with it first hand, I can assure you that the last few pages of a story most usually bring anything but peace; if fact, the last pages are oftentimes the worst. (See? I told you I’m notorious for ranting.)

WHAT I’M TRYING TO SAY is this. YA is important because it has the unbelievably heavy responsibility of influencing readers during their most impressionable stage of life. Not only is literature meant to be an escape from reality, but also as an example of how to navigate through a real life that is inescapable. I know that the recent predominance of mental illness in YA is meant to make characters seem more “real,” and to raise awareness and compassion for the overwhelming number of people who suffer everyday, but I feel like it’s done nothing but exactly the opposite. The YA book market has become so saturated with mental-illness-centered stories in such a way that makes each lose its individual weight and importance. Instead of picking up a book that deals with such an heavy topic and feeling moved, I find myself muttering nothing but, “Well here we go again.” (And mind you, I love to cry!!!) Most importantly, this over-saturated market has painted such an unrealistic, romantic, and overly-hopeful picture of mental illness in a way that does little to help those who suffer, or those who want to learn what they can do to help.

I live for the few moments when authors break the mold. When they throw vanity to the wind, and choose to write the raw, the real. More often than not, treatment fails. People can’t see that life is worth living. Characters, real world sufferers, choose suicide. I know I probably sound like a bitch for saying this, but such is life. This also challenges the ethical responsibility of YA authors to provide their volatile audiences with concrete and trigger-free stories (I go into greater discussion with my All the Bright Places review–and yes, I am shamelessly self-promoting–so check it out!) but in my eyes, if you’re going to sugarcoat the truth, then don’t give it at all. The responsibility of authors to be honest far outweighs the responsibility they should feel to be modest.

 

So, exactly are Nicole’s Nine Cents on this whole issue, which I have outlined in a few too many hundred words? 1. Simply write less books that center around characters suffering from a mental illness. As I’ve said before, over saturation beats the issue to death in a way that is counter-intuitive, and makes people care less because it’s all they see. Also, why has happy become overrated? Tell the story of a mundane life where nothing very good or very bad happens. Literature is the most potent medicine, and I don’t want to speak on behalf of everyone who suffers from a mental illness, but sometimes a true escape from reality is the best way to combat real life. And finally, 2. If authors are going to continue writing about mental illnesses in YA, they need to change the way in which they do it. Stop making recovery this miraculous, eye-opening moment that happens within the novel’s last chapters. Stop reinforcing the idea that a major cure for mental illness is falling in love. (In fact, can we all just agree that there are too many good stories lost to love story subplots in YA? But alas, that’s a conversation for another day.) Stop the revelations. Stop the 180’s. I promise, you can do the world of good you set out to write for your readers by just being honest.

It doesn’t matter how frustrated out of my mind I get with this category of novels–I still cry every time. Then again, this IS coming from the girl who cries over boybands and puppy videos on YouTube. I’m waiting for the moment, though, when I really cry. When my world is shaken, my skin starts to tingle, and my heart is slammed with the profundity that all mental-illness-centered literature has the potential to contain. Let’s turn it all around, yeah? Three cheers (tears) for all.

-Nicole, xoxo.

 

Thank you so much Nicole for sharing your thoughts! Do any of you agree with Nicole? Leave a comment down below and let me know! OR even visit Nicole’s blog and send her all the love!

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8 thoughts on “Discussing Depression/Suicide in YA Fiction

  1. Evy says:

    I’ve definitely read some really good YA books that deal with depression/mental illness, but I know that there are a lot of books that also don’t portray the difficulties of it accurately. I know people who have had or still struggle with depression, and I’ve seen how difficult it is to recover, and that it isn’t simple. I totally agree that if you aren’t going to portray it accurately, don’t write about it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sam (@rebelbooks) says:

    YES YES YES YES!! Throughout this whole post I was vigorously nodding. I really hate when mental illnesses are sugarcoated or when the love interest is like some “magical fix” to mental illness. I’ve definitely been able to find books where mental illnesses are given straight out though, such as OCD Love Story (and that title is so misleading because the book literally is not focused on a love story at alll) but I’m totally for some happy protagonists for once!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kyraandnikki says:

    The only problem I have with mental illnesses in YA books is that they tend to be romanticized which tends to appropriate it in the reader’s mind. I find that mental illnesses is NOT a tool for romance and should be treated with a lot of caution should the author decide to include it in their novels. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alexa @ Words Off the Page says:

    I think this is just a problem with young people in general at the moment. Since mental illness has become such a hot button issue everywhere, teenagers have started to romanticize it considerably thinking they’d become more “popular” or they’d become “special”. It’s really saddening actually. To think that you have to become mentally ill to have any kind of attention (which is mental illness in itself, this situation is very complex).

    So with the rise in this, the market follows. Now we have novels where a suicidal girl/boy/whatever learns life is better through love which is–excuse my french–bullshit. I don’t want to sound pretentious or even…parental, but I feel like people need to read books that are from writers that were incredibly mentally ill to see that this isn’t some flowery happy ending. Reading The Bell Jar by Plath was painful for me to read and hearing everybody else moan about her or make fun of her suicidal attempts made me realize that people don’t really care about the issue, they care about the allure of the issue. It’s become a trend.

    I think authors are now using this as a counter to the “tragic backstory of a hero” so that they don’t look like an archetype and sadly are now creating a way more harmful archetype.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. JLynn Hernandez says:

    Great article. I’m one of those guilty of oversaturating the market. Rather, I’m about to be. I’ve been working on a couple works in progress and one has a story line including cutting and self-destructive behavior. It may have subconsciously been planted in my mind because my teenaged daughters have told and shown me, via pictures and texts, how much their friends partake in such things. Which is more often than when I was growing up. However, love, especially of other people, does not conquer all in my story. Self-love is a start, but only that. I’m neither a doctor, nor do I give a cure to mental illness within my work.

    Some books do romanticize the subject and it does seem to be feeding the trend monster as mentioned by Alexa. And it is sad. But that doesn’t mean we should lay off as writers unless we are qualified therapists. Perhaps there should be more moral responsibility on the writers’ part. But that’s fiction. That’s where we have books purposely written to start a dialogue. Whether it’s about violence, American Psycho, or supposed love, dare I say 50 Shades?

    I may be a Debbie Downer, but I will most likely keep the story line not only because it is pertinent to to the plot, but to the character and the intended readership. I tend to read not only for diversion’s sake, but also sometimes for familiarity’s sake. Not always, but…yeah. Thanks for the food for thought and I love the way you write.

    Interestingly enough, my 13-year-old bought Plath’s The Bell Jar a couple days ago with her own money and not for a book report.

    Like

  6. ccovertocover says:

    Hmm… this is an interesting take on such a heavy topic. This post made me think. Thank you for that.

    I remember a while ago Made You Up by Francesca Zappia came under some fire for mis-portraying schizophrenia through the main character. I greatly enjoyed the story, but I have no knowledge or background of the illness itself, so I was receptive to both opinions.

    As you pointed out, YA is huge. Books in our beloved genre have the potential to shape readers’ beliefs, morals, and opinions on various topics. Because YA is so influential, it is critical that topics, like mental illness, are written carefully and accurately. So, while, like you said, the reading is an “escape from reality”, people still realize the harsh truths of mental illnesses. The road to recovery does not exist in a new love interest found on a random whim; it exists in trials and tribulations– and often, these trials and tribulations are too overwhelming to bear. Our books need to relay this message instead of one of insta-love.

    I love your calls to action at the conclusion of this post. Immediate action is necessary to solve this issue.

    Claire ❥ Cover to Cover

    Like

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