So, as my book is coming out on June 5, I want to kick off a new part of this blog. Countless authors have addressed the topic of mental health in young adult books before, and I wanted to get their perspective on the topic. To that end, I started reaching out to some of these authors.
1) Can you talk about your own experiences with mental health and how it impacted the book? This is the question that I always ask because it certainly impacted mine.
I’ve been open for many years about my struggles with depression, PTSD, and anxiety. I think by default, a lot transferred into JERKBAIT, especially as I used to be a teen athlete (show jumping) and my Olympic dreams were shattered with a career-ending injury. A lot of people unknowingly and often unintentionally glamorize mental illness–recently, a best seller made a statement about how people should date “broken” people because they were beautiful, and I threw up in my mouth a little. That sort of mentality prevents a person who’s struggling from getting better because they end up internalizing that thought–am I only beautiful if I’m broken? It’s not helpful.
A huge part of writing JERKBAIT was to be as authentic as possible and show that no, mental illness is not something to romanticize. It’s hell. It’s something that I think I’ll always personally struggle with although I’m not ashamed of it. I actively promote discussion of mental illness to fight the stigma.
2) Your book obviously deals with sexual orientation and sports. How much instruction did you get from the experience of real life athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins?
When I was competing, I was in a very gay-friendly sport (emphasis on that as the other letters connected in the LGBTQ+ community were not particularly welcome, and I did experience a lot of this). In JERKBAIT’s process and completion, I partnered with You Can Play–a nonprofit to support the treatment and rights of LGBTQ+ athletes. For all 31 teams in the NHL, there is at least one spokesperson for YCP. Being in the community, I’ve faced a lot of hostility over the years so it was an unfortunate reality.
3) Whether intentional or not, Jerkbait seems to address the perpetual nature vs. nurture debate of the impact of genetics and depression. Did you mean to do that?
Yes, very intentional. I also really wanted to discuss toxic masculinity, especially in sports. One could easily say that the toxic environment Robbie and Tristan experience on a daily basis from their parents to their coach to their peers would affect depression and anxiety–that’s absolutely correct. But also, without question, genetics play a role. Even if there was less pressure on the Betterby twins, I think they would still have depression–they would be able to manage it better. Without giving away spoilers, the end of JERKBAIT goes into this a bit.
4) I ask this question because it seems to clearly come across in this book: The notion that societal pressure to succeed is (literally) killing today’s teens. How much of an impact do you think society is having on today’s youth and the recent spike in depression, and what can teens do to mitigate that pain?
Without question, the high pressure is contributing to youth (and also young adults). There are pressures that exist currently that weren’t an issue before, such as not being able to survive (literally) because of the GOP removing resources. Three weeks ago, a person on FB I thought I was friends with mocked the idea of a “Cry Closet”–literally a small room in a library that was developed so that people, if overwhelmed, could go somewhere for a few minutes, recollect, and then go on with their day successfully. Their suggestion for solving the problem of these “wimps” was “school shootings.” I’m not joking. When I said it was a terrible joke, they replied saying dead kids were preferable to wimpy kids (aka anyone who’s looking for help). The people speaking and agreeing with it were all in their 60s and up.
The problem isn’t with youth today. The problem is that older generations are preventing people from getting help, literally. For example, if you make too much for medicaid but don’t make a “minimum wage,” you are ineligible for tax credits for healthcare. Teens and even younger kids see their parents struggle to make ends meet and survive and find a way for their kids to have a better life–it feels overwhelming and impossible. Even as an adult, I struggle with this daily.
5) What’s your advice to teens who have experiences like Robbie? How can they cope when their personal and family lives are as bleak as his get?
If possible, go to a nonprofit (or school counselor) for help. Nonprofits like Jewish Family Services might have a waitlist, but there are trained professionals who can work with budgets (sometimes seeing people for free) to help. There’s a stigma against getting help, and most don’t know about these resources. There are also other organizations like The Trevor Project that are absolutely superb.
Also, I want teens to know that if they seek counseling, it is confidential. Please talk to someone if at all possible. And also, less time on social media. It can be tied to so much drama. I’m a writer so I’m bias but I strongly encourage spending time each week (if not 15 mins/day) reading for pleasure. A book is a great way to escape and refresh.
6) Just as importantly: What’s your advice for teens like Tristian, whose families are collapsing around them and who have less-than-stellar family support when they need it most?