I had my first panic attack when I was seven. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when I was twelve. I've dealt on and off with depression since I was fourteen. When I was fifteen, I thought I was better. I had my first manic episode at sixteen. This February, when I was seventeen, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. In March, like the cherry on a sad, soggy cake, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as well.
These were my secrets, until recently, when I realized I was tired of living like there was something wrong with me. I take my medications, I see an excellent psychiatrist once a month or so, and I go into therapy when I need to. Sometimes when I have an episode, it's difficult for me to do things like concentrate or think straight or write blog posts or talk (or tweet) coherently, but these are few and far between. I am not a freak. I have hopes and dreams and a life like everyone else, and I have to grow up like everyone else, too.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 20% of teens have a diagnosable mental illness (most commonly depression and anxiety). Additionally, many mental disorders--including bipolar, anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders, self-harm, and for men, schizophrenia--often present during your teen years or early 20s. And even teens who aren't directly afflicted by mental illness often have a friend or family member who is, since about one in four American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.
From what I can tell, mental illness in YA falls into three categories: "magical madness," in which the mental illness is used as a jumping-off point for a paranormal or mystical plotline, the "issue book," in which mental illness either in the protagonist or someone the protagonist cares about forms the crux of the story arc, and usually involves harrowing brushes with self-harm or suicide, and "new normal," in which mental illness forms some sort of subplot not critical to the story, or is simply a character trait.
To start, I'd like to look at the first category: Magical Madness. The two examples I can think of in this category are Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, in which the protagonist Hanna is on antipsychotics to treat her schizophrenia, and The Unquiet by Jeannine Garsee, in which the protagonist Rinn is bipolar. (I've read and loved Bleeding Violet, while The Unquiet is loaded up on my Nook at the top of my to-read list.) Magical Madness is characterized by its treatment of mental illness as somehow mystical, paranormal, fantastical, or all of the above. It often ends with the mentally ill character "embracing the crazy," often going off their medications or stopping treatment in order to fully experience their magical powers. This portrayal of mental illness is the most problematic of the three, due to its contribution to the perception of mental illness as "other" and sometimes dangerous; however, when taken with a grain of salt, they can be fantastic books and a great addition to mental illness literature.
The second category, the Issue Book, is the most common in YA, and dominate my list of mental illness titles: Impulse by Ellen Hopkins, Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, Crazy by Han Nolan, Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu, A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler, Cut by Patricia McCormick, Compulsion by Heidi Ayarbe, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson all fall into this category. These books often serve as a first introduction to a mental illness for teens (and adults reading YA), and often involve info-dump passages about the illness, as well as long visits with counselors and "shrinks." I've read and loved a lot of this kind of book, and I think they'll always belong in the picture. But just like books with characters of color or LGBT characters, it would be nice to finally see some books where the characters are "out and proud" with their illness, and can live normal, topsy-turvy teenage lives.
The third category--New Normal--is, in my experience, both the hardest category to find and the category we need the most of. The two examples of this I could think of were Unraveling Isobel by Eileen Cook, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson has a particularly sensitive and wonderful portrayal of a character with depression, as this review from This Ain't Livin' explains. Unraveling Isobel actually straddles two categories because of its magical elements, but its honest treatment of what it's like to have a family member with schizophrenia without making it the central issue of the story intrigued me.
In the end, I think YA is doing a great job of portraying mental illness in all its forms--but we could be doing even better. The discussion about realistic and sensitive portrayals is one we need to be having about mental illness (as well as on disabilities in general), and I'd love to hear what you think. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, as well as any titles I may have missed!
(For those looking for my full work-in-progress list of YAs with mental illness that I've been compiling with Twitter's help, you can find it on Goodreads here.)