As someone whose family has been affected by both depression and suicide, I am always interested in how authors, especially those writing for teens, choose to represent aspects of a character’s mental health.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, approximately 2 million U.S. adolescents attempt suicide each year in the United States, which (and not to sound childish) makes me extremely sad and want a way to be able to reach out to those readers who might not feel comfortable talking about it, but who desire a way to process their own feelings on the subject.
Recently, I had been reading a lot of YA fiction galleys, and I noticed a trend – books about suicide and depression have definitely increased, and I think that is very good thing for not only teens, but also those who work with teens or have special teens in their lives. Society hasn’t always been kind to the topic of mental illness (still isn’t in a lot of ways, actually) – but, being about to talk about it openly without fear of reprisal is something that has gotten better over the past few years. And, with the influx of new teen literature looking at suicide and depression in responsible, caring ways there comes a new way to reach out to those who are maybe struggling with it or dealing with it in their family or group of friends. I was happy to see School Library Journal’s excellent new bibliotherapy booklist for teens – it offers suggestions for those struggling with depression and suicide, but other tough topics, as well; be sure to check it out, if you haven’t already. In today’s post, I thought I’d highlight my five favorite new books that deal with suicide – I think all of them treat it with respect and a thoughtful nature.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: This book is actually my favorite out of the bunch; I really think this is one of the most realistic portrayals of depression and suicide that I have read in a really long time. Violet and Finch meet at the top of the bell tower at their school; they are both entertaining the thought of jumping to their deaths. Finch has been dealing with depression and bipolar disorder for quite a while, but Violet has only started entertaining the thought of suicide since her older sister/best friend recently died in a car accident. After some hesitation on Violet’s part, Finch manages to get Violet to start hanging out with him, and their relationship progresses from there. However, like life, sometimes finding a special someone doesn’t mean that your depression goes away; love doesn’t cure a mental illness, which, I think, is an unfortunate message that a lot of teen books about suicide offer up as a happy ending. Sometimes people still commit suicide even though they have someone who is trying desperately to understand and help them, and I applaud this book for showing a real-life ending – one that isn’t necessarily neat or pretty. But, this is a hopeful book full of love and future plans, and one that readers will be talking about.
I Was Here by Gayle Forman: I have really loved all of Gayle’s books, and her newest one, I Was Here, is no exception. Cody and Meg were best friends all throughout high school, and they had plans for their future. Meg ended up going off to college, buy Cody was going to join her as soon as she was able. Tragically, Meg drank someone obscure cleaner in a hotel room alone, and Cody is left behind wondering what, if anything, she could have done to stop it. Shouldn’t she have known something was wrong; she was her best friend, after all. After Meg’s parents ask Cody to gather Meg’s belongings at college, Cody realizes that Meg had a life separate from hers that she had no idea about. And, in her desperation to find someone to be responsible for Meg’s suicide, Cody goes looking for a mystery man she discovers was talking to Meg on an online suicide forum. This is a heartbreaking story of doubt and regret and ultimately realizing that sometimes friends and family keep secrets from those they love the most.
My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga: Even though I do like to see depression handled in a way where people get help, and things don’t always get better because you fall in love, I do appreciate the idea that another person can be the person to help you to the place you need to be – be it treatment or just as someone to talk to about your feelings. In Jasmine Warga’s new book, Aysel is set on committing suicide – her father is in jail for a heinous crime, she is ostracized in her community and she feels very disconnected in the family she is now living with – her mother and her mother’s new family. She decided to seek out a “suicide buddy”, someone who is also committed to dying and will be a partner to ensure both go through with the pact. She meets Roman on a website for such things, and they forge a tentative and tumultuous friendship that renews Aysel’s faith in love, friendship and forgiveness. But, Roman is determined to carry out his plan regardless of Aysel’s seemingly change of heart. Both Aysel and Roman are well developed characters dealing with very different ideas of loss whom readers will feel pain and hopefulness for. A great book that shows that things can and do get better, and with the help of a friend the idea of a future might not seem so out of reach.
The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand: In this beautifully written new book by Cynthia Hand, Lex is dealing with the unexpected suicide of her younger brother, Tyler. Her family is now seemingly irrevocably broken – her mom seems shattered, her dad – estranged from the family – is emotionless and Lex is adrift with friends and teachers trying to lend support, but unable to break through the wall that Lex as erected all around her. If only she had answered that last text that Tyler sent her, maybe that would have stopped him from taking his own life. Lex now lives a life of regret and sorrow, not knowing how she can possibly lead a happy life knowing that there is a possibility she could have prevented the tragedy. Even worse is the fact that she starts seeing Tyler, and he seems to be trying to give her a message that she doesn’t understand. This heartbreaking story is a tale of survivor’s guilt and a story that illustrates that when someone reaches out, in this case, Lex, they might find that others are feeling the same way and want to be absolved of their alleged guilt, as well.
Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff: Sam’s best friend Hayden purposefully overdosed on pills and vodka while Sam was there for a sleepover. When Sam awoke the next morning, he found Hayden as well as a playlist of songs that Hayden had made for Sam – a sort of suicide note through songs. What Sam didn’t realize is that Hayden had a life outside of their friendship, and when he meets those other people in Hayden’s life he sees that maybe Hayden had been trying to move past their closed circle of friendship. A touching story of family dynamics, feeling like you’re an outsider and the toll that intense bullying can take, Playlist for the Dead spotlights, again, how survivor guilt is a complicated and nuanced feeling that can take the form of anger, sadness or even love.
Suicide and depression are tough topics not only to talk about, but to feel and experience through other people. These 5 books that I’ve spotlighted, I feel, take these topics and bring them forth to readers in a way to help others grieve and work through their own feelings surrounding mental illness. When I’ve been talking to some teens and some adults about all of these great titles, I often hear about how “dark” they sound, but they aren’t. I think these books can and will provide a space for readers to process the often complicated and difficult feelings associated with depression and suicide in a way that, I hope, will make more people aware of and alerted to warning signs both in themselves as well as their beloved friends and family around them. Only through awareness and the willingness to discuss these issues out loud will the stigma around depression and suicide be eradicated.
-Traci Glass, currently reading Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang
One thought on “Dealing with Suicide & Depression in Teen Literature”
Thank you, Traci, for sharing these five new books dealing with the tough topics of depression and teen suicide. Carefully written and researched novels on these topics can open up important discussions, point readers toward resources, and better enable teens (and teachers, librarians and caregivers) to recognize signs of depression and parasuicidal behavior in themselves and their peers. As you say, the more awareness students gain about behavior disorders, depression and suicide prevention, the more likely they will be to seek help for themselves and for others. YA fiction can play a key role in raising awareness about mental health issues and the importance of suicide prevention education. Thank you for drawing attention to these books.
Holly Thompson, author of ORCHARDS
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