Reality Scoop: Promoting Mental Wellness with YA Literature

There are no shortages of books for young adults that tackle mental illness; The Hub has focused on books for Mental Health Awareness Month and also written about the trend of suicide and depression in Young Adult literature in just the last year. But today for Reality Scoop, we’re focusing on characters in YA novels who develop coping mechanisms for dealing with depression and anxiety throughout the course of the story.

YALSA realistic fiction column

Fiction According to National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), about 20% of teens suffer from mental health issues and nearly 30% have depression before adulthood.  The impact on teens is more than just statistics, it’s the feelings and the emotions that they deal with that hurt the most.  Mental health problems just make things so much harder for teens.  It makes their home life, school and socializing much more difficult than it should be.  

NRRP reported that an estimated 67%-70% of teens in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder.  Adolescence is a very vulnerable time for teens as well as a critical period for mental, social and emotional well-being.

Mental wellness is something that can help teens to think about their own abilities and how to cope with the stresses of life.  Focusing on mental wellness can teach teens to take care of themselves by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, going outdoors and exercising.

The stresses that teens deal with during daily interactions can sometimes trigger a negative effect on their mental well-being.  There are many difficulties they have to go through and their emotions may go through a range of different degrees from mild to severe.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), teen depression can affect a teen regardless of gender, social background, income level, race, or school or other achievements, though teenage girls report suffering from depression more often than teenage boys.

Emotional wellness can be put at risk by social factors or loss of friends, so good coping skills are important to help to reduce stress for teens.  Coping skills are methods that teens can use to deal with stressful situations. Maintaining good coping skills does take practice.  However, utilizing these skills will become easier over time.  Some valuable coping skills are practicing meditation and relaxation techniques such as breathing.  Physical activities that get the heart rate up will release endorphins.  Reading is a great stress reliever and laughter is a very big stress reliever.  Adding humor to any stressful situation can definitely lighten the mood.

It is important for teens to practice skills that can help to improve their mental wellness.  A big plus is the skill of self-appreciation, this helps teens to recognize their strengths and their weaknesses.  Resilience plays a big factor in mental wellness and how teen cope and recover from adversity.  One of the most important skill is how teens associate with other teens.  This is how they develop and maintain friends.  It also helps if they have an extended support system in place.  The idea is that teens must become life-long learners of themselves and their surroundings.  Physical exercise and fun activities with friends can also help to achieve mental wellness.

Some YA realistic fiction books that tap into the idea of coping with stress and mental issues, with an emphasis on resilient characters that face adversity and overcome obstacles are listed below.

Love Letters to the DeadLove Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira – When Laurel’s teacher asks the class to write a letter to a dead person as an assignment she has no idea who she is going to write to.   There are many famous people listed like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin or Heath Ledger.  Laurel decides to write her first letter to Kurt Cobain, but then she continues to write to all of the dead people her sister May liked because she is dead now too.  Unfortunately, Laurel can’t bring herself to turn the letters in for her assignment, as they are just too personal.  But she keeps on writing and writing because the writing makes her feel closer to her sister.  Writing helps Laurel to remember the truth and brings her closer to accepting what happened to May.

Slick by Sara Cassidy – Liza is thirteen and her parents are divorced.  The only thing that keeps Liza from losing her mind and not giving into total sadness is working on DIY projects.  She makes fun things with recycled materials and items she finds a the local thrift store.  To further keep her mind off of being sad, Liza decides to throw herself into a good cause.  Since she doesn’t like her mom’s boyfriend, he seems like a good target since he works for an oil company that is ruining the environment in Guatemala.  Liza’s is group appropriately named GRRR! (Girls for Renewable Resources Really!) is out to save the environment and breaking up her mom and her new boyfriend will be an added bonus.

It's Kind of a Funny StoryIt’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2007 Best Fiction for Young Adults) – Craig Gilner is in high school and right on top of his game.  He goes to one of the most prestigious prep schools in New York and he is totally stressed out.  Through a series of events where Craig is feeling overwhelmed and depressed, he ends up spending five days on Six North, an adult psychiatric wing at the hospital in Brooklyn.  Six North is just what Craig needs.  He’s able to tap into his true self and reach inside himself and he begins to create art again.  This heartwarming story shows that a young person can find healing in even the oddest of situations.  Craig is able to find solace at Six North and true friendship that he would not have been able to find anywhere else.

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (2006 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers) – Lockhart has wooed us with many female YA voices.  We’ve seen Frankie a super feminist in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and Cadence, the lost and lonely amnesiac soul in We Were Liars.  However, in The Boyfriend List we find Ruby Oliver a girl who continues to experience difficulties with friends, boys, and school that lead to her having panic attacks due to the stress. Things start to look up for Ruby after she starts seeing a therapist.  She is able to talk about her home life and all of the difficulties she has been having at school with boys and how her parents fight all the time.  Ruby is able to mend some of her broken pieces and find her own voice by taking steps to maintaining her mental wellness in this delightful book by E. Lockhart.

Tune in next month for more Reality Scoop where we will be talking about Random Acts of Kindness.

— Kimberli Buckley, currently reading Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard