An overview & critique: Depression in fiction books

For reasons that I will inevitably wind up discussing more in-depth later, this is a topic that I am very interested in.  After all, there is no doubt about it: So much of our world is informed by our media, including fiction books.  Major pop culture phenomenons – books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, for instance – wind up having a major impact on a whole slew of societal attitudes, everything from the names of our children to the hobbies we play.

Of course this extends to serious issues, like mental health.  As I sat, thinking about this entry, I came to the realization that I cannot think of too many books I’ve read that explicitly feature stories about characters who feature mental illness – even when the book is potentially about something other than mental illness.  This is important from a stigma perspective: I think it is vital that readers hear stories about people with mental illness living a successful life, despite their challenges.

Now, please don’t misunderstand: Just because I haven’t read them doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.  A very quick Google search reveals no shortage of books that discuss exactly this topic.  And, indeed, many of these books touch of mental illness in a more tangential way.

Two young adult books that I’ve read immediately come to mind.  One is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which discusses a young woman moving to college and dealing with a slew of pressures, then finding therapy in her writing.  Another, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet by Joanne Proulx, features a character who clearly is struggling with depression and anxiety, even though it goes unspoken throughout the novel.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of Young Adult novels, which I must confess, I still enjoy (a quick look at my Goodreads page will confirm this!).  But, from the perspective of mental illness, there is an important reason for discussing this genre in particular: 50% of all mental illness starts at age 14, and 75% by age 24.  If this issue can be addressed early enough – particularly during it’s onset – it can make a big difference.

I suppose my point is this: As best I can tell – and, again, admittedly, I could be wrong, please correct me if I am – it seems like mental illness in fiction is addressed in one of two ways:

  1. It is completely undiagnosed, leaving readers guessing or playing armchair psychiatrists, and that’s never a good idea.
  2. It is the centerpiece of the book.

Don’t get me wrong, neither of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  I’m just having this conversation from a stigma perspective.  The first option listed above can be problematic and fail to fully address a characters illness, which can lead to misguided perceptions about the way that mental illness works.  The second option can be good, but it, too, can make people think that mental illness is somehow more debilitating than it truly is.

Also, please understand, I’m not criticizing any author or book.  Many of the ones that deal with mental illness – directly or indirectly – are powerful, and it’s not possible or fair to be critical of an author simply because they don’t address a particular issue in a way I want to see it done.

That being said, from a stigma perspective, that’s what I’d love to see more of.

Any thoughts to add, or books I am missing?  I’d really love to know – if only to read them!  Please let us know in the comments.

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