It’s Not You, It’s Me: Talking about the Things We Don’t Talk About Mental Health in YA Fiction by Kim Briggs
In ninth grade, I remember sitting in Madame Chambers French class. The seat to my left was empty and had been empty for three or four weeks. There were rumors that Lily tried to hurt herself, but I didn’t believe them because everyone liked Lily. The teachers, the students, the coaches, everyone, but here’s the thing, and it took me a lot of years to figure this out, Lily didn’t like Lily. She returned to French class a few days later. She smiled to her friends in the hall, she said, “Hello,” to Madame Chambers, and she acted like everything was normal. For three days, she came to French class, smiled at her classmates, said “Hello” to Madame Chambers, and participated in class discussion, but when no one was looking or she thought no one was looking, a sadness rolled off her that I didn’t remember seeing before. That Thursday, Lily and I stayed after school along with a half dozen other students for Peer Support. In Peer Support, we shared what we were feeling and learned ways to help other people deal with whatever battle they were struggling with. It was during that Peer Support session, that Lily told us that she tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists, and her parents found her before she could bleed out.
She told us about her eating disorder, she told us that she always felt sad or really happy and no in-between, and she told us how she worried about everything, all the time. The rest of us or at least me, couldn’t understand why Lily would starve herself, why she would purge herself, why did she worry so much, and why would she try to end her life. When I was in school, even in a group meant to help students understand themselves and other students, we didn’t use words like Mental Health, Depression, Anxiety, and Body Image, and there weren’t any books, or at least none that we wanted to read that could help us understand the struggles of someone else or even help to understand the struggles within ourselves.
Today’s generations of readers are smart. They are tech savvy. They are exposed to the realities of the outside world, both the good and the bad. To ignore this reality, to deny this existence as parents, teachers, librarians, public servants, and adults writing for children disservices this generation. Lily always asked the questions everyone else was afraid to. During the Peer Support sessions that followed, she led discussions on topics the rest of us only spoke about in hushed undertones. She embraced her Depression, Anxiety, and Eating Disorder, and over time, drew strength for them.
Recently, I read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. It was recommended by a teacher at the 2017 NCTE conference. She picked up the book, placed it in my hands, and said, “You have to read this. My students love it.” The blurb on the back cover said it all, “A heart-wrenching, unflinching story of love shared, life lived, and two teens who find each other while standing on the edge.” Finch and Violent did literally and figuratively stand on the edge. All the Bright Places addresses Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Mental Health through the first person point of view. Niven allowed us to enter into the mind of someone who doesn’t think like everyone else but who does think like a growing percentage of the population. Finch and Violet are charming and sweet and in love, but sometimes even love isn’t enough to keep someone around, and that silent struggle can be the most painful. All the Bright Places provides a springboard for conversation in the classroom, in the home, at the library, at the local park. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Speak and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, also allow conversation discussion points between parent to child, teacher to student, counselor to student, author to reader, reader to classmate, and teen to adult.
Today, Lily leads a full, active life. She still talks about Mental Health, her struggles with Anorexia and Bulimia, Mindfulness, and ways to improve self-image, and she’s still not afraid to ask the questions that everyone else is afraid to ask, and now, she often provides the answers too. I know this topic isn’t necessarily one that people want to read about during the holidays, but the holidays are a particularly difficult time of year for people who struggle with Mental Illness. Read the books. Be present. Pay attention to the signs. Begin conversations. And when the conversations begin, don’t let them end.
I am constantly on the hunt for books that deal with Mental Health but aren’t about Mental Health. I want books about characters on a journey to discovery.
What are your favorite books to begin conversations?
Kim Briggs is the author of the Starr Fall series. She once smashed into a tree while skiing. The accident led to a concussion, a cracked sternum, temporary notoriety as a sixth grader returned from the dead, and the realization that fictionalized accounts are way more interesting than just slipping on the ice. Kim loves speaking to schools, libraries, and other community organizations. Find out more about her by visiting KimBriggsWrite.com or @KimBriggsWrite.