Recently I was checking out the results of the Goodreads 2015 choice awards and something caught my attention. In the category of Young Adult Fiction there was something a bit ‘samey’ about the books on show. On closer investigation eight of twenty books had mental illness/suicide centric to the plot. In short- If you are a fictional character in the Goodreads Choice YA Awards there is about 40% chance you are mentally ill.
One part of me chirrups: “This surely must mean young people are more accepting !”. But then the cynic in me groans that this of course depends heavily on how accurate the portrayal of mental illness is in the books. I’ve read stories where the serial killers are mentally ill and it is just a plot device to make them appear all the more threatening- like mental illness is an exotic spice to throw into an otherwise unappetising dish. These young adult titles aren’t like that though. The mentally ill characters are the ‘goodies’ of the tale; the protagonists, the much loved family members. So are we now seeing mental illness as an appealing character trait? If so there are many who haven’t heard the news.
I think we need to talk about the very real threat of mental illness becoming ‘cool’ amongst young people. We are getting there with raising awareness of the problem but we should also bear in mind how we could put more effort into profiling a solution. Wellbeing. Looking after yourself, positive thinking, healthy lifestyles. They don’t ‘stop’ mental illness striking but they can give you stronger armour against it. Alas, teens who make sure they get enough sleep and have a good work-life balance do not make very interesting narratives to follow; but perhaps the amount of mental illness in these titles indicate we have a problem emerging.
I know of schools that have a self harm epidemic on their hands; where young people are injuring themselves for means other than their own emotional release. In some classes it spreads through friendship groups as a trend or a badge of honour. It’s risky for all involved and it’s often the people that leave their wounds hidden behind jumpers and their mouths shut that need to be reached out to the most. What we don’t know is whether these books are so popular because teenagers are idolising mental illness or because, perhaps more worryingly, they see themselves in the ill characters.
Are characters with mental illness deeper and more mysterious than ones without? In the real world I don’t think this could be further from the truth. There is nothing ‘mysterious’ about me sobbing, or ‘deep’ about medication knocking me out every night. I haven’t read the books so cannot critique the portrayals but the prevalence of mental illness in the list struck me. It can’t be coincidence. Is it awareness or glorification? Where is the line between the two? Does mental illness guarantee a juicy plotline?
If you are interested in reading a book with an accurate portrayal of living with a mental health condition I would fully recommend Holly Bourne’s ‘Am I Normal Yet?’. It is to date the best book I have been able to find showing what it is really like to live with OCD. I’m hoping to read the eight books on the list to see if I can work out why ugly mental illness might be so popular.