Thursday 19 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month: Hannah of Sprinkled With Words - I'm Tired of the Repetitive Mental Illness Rep I'm Seeing in YA

Mental Illness in YA Month

Today, Hannah of Sprinkled With Words is stopping by with a guest post to talk about the clichés of mental illness she's tired of seeing in YA novels.

The plot of someone being ‘saved’ from their mental health illness has become such a hateful cliché that whenever I see a contemporary novel about mental illness, I’m always a little wary. Thankfully, it seems to have been phased out by authors in the last few years, but it still crops up occasionally. And, sadly, it seems that there’re even more clichés to come.

I’ve had mental health illnesses for about six years now, and I am so tired of bad rep in literature. But yes, I can hear people saying - this might have been an issue a few years ago, but nowadays when you read about mental health illnesses, it’s done so much better! And yes, it is, I agree. This cliché is, thankfully, now just that.

But I see this cliché and raise you another: repetitive rep. It’s an issue I am getting tired of in literature. I’m tired of obsessive compulsive disorder just being represented by a character who loves cleaning; of anxiety being a panic attack now and again, and always at ‘convenient’ times and is ‘sorted’ quickly; of depression rep being a character who is just sad all the time. Of course, some of these disorders are characterised in these way: OCD is often about cleanliness, anxiety revolves around panic, and depression is an all-consuming weight of sadness and emptiness. But, well, not always.

Mental illness disorders don’t always have the same symptoms, but I think that some authors think that they do. I want OCD rep that is about numbers, not cleanliness, or anxiety where a character may never have a panic attack but instead has Generalised Anxiety Disorder because panic attacks /= anxiety, or depression where there is a feeling of nothing rather than sadness.

It seems that in mental health rep in YA, one cliché is consistently swapped for another. Once a description of mental illness has been found to be representative, it is clung to, especially in cases of more common mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Of course, not all of the representation can appear in every book, but I think that the repetitiveness of the representation is just as unhelpful. People are becoming, of course, far more aware about mental illness, but there are still so many misconceptions. People who suffer with mental illness hear things like, “What do you have to be sad/anxious about?”, “Everything is clean, just stop,”, “Just smile!”. I think that this comes partly because people think that every disorder has the same symptoms, which I find is an issue perpetrated by literature. But I have OCD and I am very (very) messy; I have anxiety and I have panic attacks maybe every two or three months; I have depression, and I laugh all the time.

Mental illness isn’t just a textbook set of symptoms and definitions, so why are authors writing about them as if they are? I am tired of reading a book and knowing that the character might have depression, but I might never actually be represented; of authors who might read books on psychology but still get it wrong because they’ve never understood it. The cliché of someone being ‘saved’ from mental illness is being written out, but I’m still tired of seeing the clichés of how a mental illness is characterised being written in.

Mental illness is a subjective topic that authors are keen to get ‘right’, but there will always be a fewpeople whose experiences are different. Above all, however, I think that authors should not be afraid to write about mental illness, even if it isn’t rep seen in a novel before.

Of course, many authors do write about their own experiences, and I’m not saying that they should change what they write about to something other than their experiences. Mental health isn’t a one illness/one cure type of arrangement like a papercut, and one book about mental health is never

going to please everybody. And no, I’m not some old miser – I am very happy that readers can find rep that resonates with them in YA! It pleases me that people can relate to a character in a book. I just wish that there was a book, any book – a fantasy, a contemporary, a sci-fi – that I could pick up and relate to, because my mental illness isn’t defined by the most common set of symptoms laid out in a basic psychology text book, and I know that I cannot be the only one out there. No? Perhaps I should just get along and write it then...


Hannah Brown is a young reader, writer, and blogger from the United Kingdom. She is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. If you want to find her, she’ll probably be lurking in a bookstore, at a museum, or in the cinema. You can locate her online, however, via Twitter or her blogs Sprinkles With Words or Hannah Brown: Writer & Blogger.

Thank you, Hannah, for such a great guest post! This is something I can understand; I have anxiety, but very rarely do I have the illogical spiralling thoughts. Most of the time, my anxiety seems to come out of nowhere, nothing to do with what I'm actually thinking about, and more to do with what's going on with me subconciously. And when I have panic attacks, I hardly ever hyperventilate. Yet most that feature anxiety show those symptoms. And it is always refreshing to see anxiety represented with other symptoms.

What do you guys think? Can you recommend any novels that feature mental illness rep with other symptoms other than the stereotypical symptoms?

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  1. I couldn't agree more with everything you've said! I read so many books where the character is defined by their mental health struggles and the way that their struggles are represented are so stereotypical and not unique to the actual character at all!!!!

    Grace Louise ||

    1. This is so true. We definitely need a variety of representation, and more stories that show people with mental illness doing other things than just being someone with a mental illness. Thankfully, we are getting more of the latter.

  2. I agree that it would be nice to see more variances in the way mental health issues are portrayed. Great post!!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction