[graphic that says “Discussion Post” with birds and trees in the background]
Content warning: depression, suicide
Hi all! I’m back again with a discussion post. As many of you know, I have depression, and I’m so passionate about diversity in books, particularly authentic representations of characters with mental illness(es). It’s not uncommon for me to bring both of those subjects into applicable reviews, so I thought it was about time for a discussion post. Today, I’m going to talk about where I feel depression representation in YA books currently stands, what I hope to see in the future, and a brief list of some handy ways you can support diverse books at the end.
Before I dive in, I want to note that while I do have depression, I am without a doubt still coming from a place of privilege. White, cishet people (me) with mental illnesses often have vastly different experiences than people of color, queer or transgender people, people who also have physical disabilities, and any/all intersectionalities of those. They often face significantly more disadvantages, and their voices must be heard. For further conversations about diversity (with or without a depression focus), I highly recommend following these important voices on Twitter: We Need Diverse Books (@diversebooks), Disability in Kidlit (@DisabilityinLit), Kelly Jensen (@veronikellymars), Malinda Lo (@malindalo), Cindy Pon (@cindypon), Lamar Giles (@LRGiles), Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELama), Nic Stone (@getnicced), Heidi Heilig (@heidihelig), and Read Diverse Books (@_diversebooks). However, these are just a few voices, and if you search #ownvoices, you will likely find many more great people to follow for diversity conversations.
For my personal experience with depression, I have been officially diagnosed in the last year and gone undiagnosed since childhood. I am currently in therapy and have recently started medication.
Because of organizations like We Need Diverse Books and Disability in KidLit, we, as a book community, are having FANTASTIC conversations about representations in children’s/MG/YA literature. I’m focusing on YA specifically because that’s 1) the area I’m most passionate about, and 2) I truly think YA books are an area where we are getting wonderful diverse stories. Every time deal announcements come out, I’m overjoyed at what kinds of diverse stories are being sold. However, this is still a work in progress. While many people deal with depression, each of their experiences are different. Some use medication, some use therapy, some experience it seasonally (S.A.D.), some have it with anxiety or PTSD, etc. There is no one single narrative. We can’t just have a handful of books that talk about depression when the different stories to be told are as enormous as a mountain. Readers need intersectional books that deal with depression. We also need diverse people in editorial, marketing, acquisitions, and more to get the best and most authentic books produced. Conversations about these ideas happen practically daily.
If you are new to this conversation and aren’t sure why you should care, think of the books you read growing up. Did you see yourself in them? If you’re a white, able-bodied, cis-het man, how many books did you read that featured characters just like you? I’m betting a lot. If you met any one of that criteria, you probably found books that fit at least part of your identity. How did it make you feel to find such an easy connection to a story?
There are young (and old) readers in the world who have yet to find a single story that features a character like themselves. They haven’t had a chance to read a book and think, “Wow, I know exactly what this character feels. It’s so amazing to have someone get it.” Those people deserve to have their voices heard. Especially with people who deal with depression, we often feel isolated and alone. Like no one understands our pain. Like no one cares about us. Reading a book with a character who knows exactly what that’s like is comforting at least and life-saving at best. If it features a healthy depiction of therapy, it might prompt a depressed reader to give therapy a try. Same if it involves medication. It might explore the strange nuances of navigating all sorts of relationships, school, work, etc. while dealing with depression and give insight on how to manage or empathy that it’s hard.
Current Depression in YA
Though we are in desperate need of more depression in YA, we do have some wonderful books already out. Disability in KidLit recently released an Honor Roll list of books they believe has done excellent representation for specific disabilities. Four books are listed for depression: This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, and Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler. I personally find their database of disability-dealing books most helpful since the reviews only come from reviewers have that disability. They have moderators who can add books, so the general public can’t. However, as they note on their site, they don’t always have the resources to cover or review every single book about every single disability, and some well-received books about certain disabilities aren’t reviewed there.
For those wanting lists with any depiction of depression, positive or negative, there is a Goodreads list here (though I hesitate to share this because of the trigger warning note saying not to read them if you have a mental illness- The point is valid, but only one perspective). This Bitch Media piece does an excellent critique of some popular mental illness books in YA. This Bustle list isn’t depression-only focused, but also supports some YA mental illness books.
What We Need More Of
Books with depression.
Haha, just kidding. Sort of.
We do need more books with depression all around, but there are also some specific elements (or lack of them) that need to fill or expand a void.
*More intersectional characters dealing with depression- Again, there are so many narratives when it comes to depression. My experience with depression is going to be different than a woman of color’s experience with depression.
*Books with no romance- Finding YA books with little to no romance can be a challenge, though it certainly isn’t impossible. One harmful idea about romance in our society is that is saves people. Sure, sometimes finding a special someone does save a person from loneliness or something else. But there is no ‘saving’ from depression. There is no special someone that can magically take it away, cure all your symptoms, and boom, you’re good for life. Romance and depression in the same book have to be managed so carefully because readers, especially young readers, should never finish the story thinking that finding a significant other will ‘fix’ them. I want to see characters who have depression and have no love interest. (Though if you do want the romance, Courtney Summers’s This is Not a Test has one of the best romances with depression I’ve ever read)
*Books with friendships- This is one category I think people are screaming for, with or without depression themes. Give us characters whose friendships mean so much to them! Give us the nuances of those friendships, especially when depression is involved. People with depression, myself included, can be downright assholes to their friends. Sometimes that’s a symptom (being irritable or lashing out); sometimes it’s a personality fault. Sometimes, it’s both. Either way, those issues NEED to be brought up in friendships. Depression can make you so isolated you believe you have no friends. You can lose friends, hurt friends, and more because of this. You can also have the best friendships in the world who take the time to understand how best to help you when you’re in a bad state.
*Books with treatments- This can include, but is not limited to: therapy, medication, support groups in person and/or online, mental health apps, etc. This is something I especially believe we need in books where mental illness is an experienced part of the character. They already know they have it in the beginning of the book, and they receive/take their treatment during their overall plot. This normalizes getting help for mental illness and helps defeat the stigma. Give me some conversations about adjusting dosages, the awkward conversations with teachers about why you’re so sleepy/spacey in class, etc. (One great example for anxiety and PTSD representation with therapy is Paula Stokes’s Girl Against the Universe)
How to Support Diverse Books
While we wait on more books like I mentioned above to come out, here are some fantastic ways to support the books we already have (which is crucial to getting more books because publishers see that readers want them):
*Buy them: This seems obvious, but seriously, give your money, if you can. Indie bookstores are a great place to buy, but also check out Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, Amazon, Indiebound, The Book Depository, Book Outlet, and more.
*Request them at your local library: Not everyone has the funds to buy all the diverse books they can, so a great compromise is asking your library to buy it. This still gives money to the author, supports your library, and helps you financially.
*Review them: Especially on retail sites. Goodreads is great, but if Amazon gets more than 50 reviews for a book, they start promoting it, leading ideally to more sales. Remember to cross post your reviews if you blog.
*Support the authors: Some authors use Patreon, a system where you can pledge as low as $1 per month to help them. Most have fun exclusives for however much you pledge, such as special newsletters, sneak peeks, and more.
*Recommend them: to your friends, family, various people on the street, anyone you see. 😉
*Share them on social media: Say you know it will be a long time before you can read the book, but want to support it more now. Taking a fun bookstagram picture of it or talking it about on Twitter goes a long way. I’ve bought so many books that friends have discussed on social media. It really works.
Ways to find help if you need it
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, please urge them to seek help. The suicide hotline number (for USA) is 1-800-273-8255. If you don’t like calling, they also have a text line: START to 741-741.
If you take college classes, your college likely has a counseling center and have people available for you to talk to.
If you can’t afford therapy, try researching places that let you pay based on income or have some sort of sliding rate, though always check to see what your insurance policy is. If therapy still isn’t a financially feasible option, see if there are any local support groups that meet.
Mental health apps are also a great way to communicate or keep track of your medication and moods. Pacifica, BoosterBuddy, and Moods are only a few, but there are many more out there.
What are your thoughts on mental illness representation in books? Are there any books that deal with this that you LOVE? Or reversely, any you found harmful? If you’re a reader with a mental illness, what makes you want to pick up a book that includes your illness (or do you want to pick those up at all)?