New Books Highlight: Tackling Tough Issues
On Monday, August 5 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the Village Center Meeting Room, the Shorewood School District is holding a community forum about youth mental health and suicide. These are important, huge subjects that deserve our close attention. I hope you can make it to this community forum!
Authors know this – maybe those authors who write for teens in particular – and that is why it’s actually pretty easy to find a lot of amazing fictional books about mental health issues facing young people. Fiction helps us to better-understand big issues like depression, teen suicide, and bullying, by letting us explore the issues through a comfortable distance while simultaneously pushing us to examine them more closely. Fiction can also help to normalize – and thus reduce the stigma of – mental illness. When we can openly talk about mental illness, we can help ourselves and help others instead of persecuting, ignoring or shaming someone for their illness.
Reading well-written fiction about people like ourselves or very different from ourselves – clever, thoughtful, otherwise okay teens who suffer from depression, or popular, happy teens who find themselves having to come to terms with the suicide of a friend, or marginalized, queer/questioning teens who overcome bullies by finding solace in friends, family and caring adults – helps us better understand all of us.
Here are a few (pretty) new titles that explore mental illness in teens:
Emmy and Justin are both sent to Heartland, a treatment center boarding school where they are supposed to come to terms with the mental illness that got them there. Emmy threatened a racist bully and got expelled from school and Justin feels strongly that his suicide attempt wasn’t serious; both teens think they are mostly fine. As they get to know each other and their classmates/therapy group-mates, they begin to delve deeper into their illnesses – and to come to terms with the fact that they have been ignoring their illnesses and won’t recover until they face them. Like some other notable books about teen mental illness (for example, It’s Kind of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini), Cook lets her characters be hilarious, inappropriate, sarcastic while dealing with serious mental illness – and thus Emmy, Justin and the whole Heartland bunch come across as very real.
On the surface, this is not a book about being depressed or suicidal – but it is a book about sliding between stable mental states, struggling against violence in a violent society, and coming to terms with oneself. James is desperate to prove himself to his older brother, Louis, and does the only thing he knows how: gets involved in Louis’ drug dealing. When a deal goes awry, Louis abandons James to the consequences. James is incarcerated at a juvenile detention center where bad goes to worse: every inmate is a bully, every situation is wrought with violence and fear and James does not know how he will hang on to himself – or who he even is. At the heart of James’s story is a message of survival when the odds are against you.
This is another story that treats a serious mental illness – schizophreniform disorder, a kind of temporary schizophrenia – with both humor and tender tact. It’s not a kind of disease that we talk about much, so Cameron’s situation is unique and enlightening. Cameron decides not to take his meds in an effort to maintain some control over his life. But this means that it is not long before he hears voices in his head which begin to compete for his attention. On top of that, Cameron convinces Nina, a clinically depressed classmate, to drop her meds, too. Only Nina’s decision may have more serious consequences than Cameron’s. Author Averett is a clinical psychologist and does an amazing job of showing us who a teen with schizophreniform disorder is.