11 Enlightening and Empathetic YA Novels About Mental Illness
by Laura Lambert
Of all the resounding themes in YA, struggling with anxiety and depression — or any type of mental illness — is right up there with first love. Why? Perhaps it’s because our teen years are when so many complicated mental health issues first arise. There are also the everyday stressors of growing up, which can push just about anyone over the edge.
Mental health issues are so prevalent that if teens aren’t experiencing some of these issues themselves, chances are they know someone who is. Now, more than ever, it’s important and powerful, and sometimes even healing and cathartic, to delve into the darker aspects of our psyches without fear — knowing that even if there’s no easy resolution, there’s always room for deeper understanding.
Turtles All the Way Down
On the surface, Turtles All the Way Down is the story of 16-year-old Aza, trying to solve the mystery of a fugitive billionaire. But the novel is really a revelation of what it’s like to live with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Green has been open about his own similar struggles, and this is his first book to tackle the subject so directly. “I had to write with enough distance from myself to make it OK, to make it feel safe,” he told Time. “And so Aza has somewhat different focai of her obsessive concerns and the behaviors she uses to manage them. I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions.”
Laurie Halse Anderson, the beloved, award-winning author of Speak, is not one to shy away from tough topics, and Wintergirls is no exception. In this raw, sometimes tough-to-read novel, Anderson delves into anorexia, cutting, and suicide. But for 18-year-old Lia, who loses her best friend Cassie to the disease they share, there is reason to go on.Available from:
I Have Lost My Way
Three very different teens, each grappling with their own personal story of loss, meet by accident in New York City’s Central Park. As they share more about themselves, we learn, over the course of just one day, about the struggles they face — from mental illness to the difficulty of coming out. “The intersections of love, family, and identity—and how loss impacts them all—lay the groundwork for the breathtaking empathy and friendship that takes root among these three seemingly dissimilar teens within hours of meeting each other,” says Kirkus. This is not the author’s first foray into the more difficult parts of growing up, or loss. Forman’s 2016 book, I Was Here, is a heartbreaking work driven by suicide.
Gayle Forman wrote, of this novel, “Hold Still may be the truest depiction of the aching, gaping hole left in the wake of a suicide that I’ve ever read. A haunting and hopeful book about loss, love, and redemption.” When Ingrid commits suicide, Caitlin feels as if she’s been left with nothing. But as she travels through Ingrid’s final days, which she left in a journal for Caitlin, the girl left behind comes closer to finding hope.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay
This debut novel is about so many things — just one of which is what it’s like to have clinical depression. As Khorram told Brightly, “At first it seemed like there was a surge in books about suicide, but lately there have been books that look at mental illness as a part of a person rather than a crisis. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks eloquently about the dangers of a single story. For a long time, suicide was the single story for mental illness, but we’re finally seeing multiple stories, and I’m hopeful that trajectory will continue.” If you love this story, be sure to read the sequel — Darius the Great Deserves Better.
This Song Will Save Your LifeAvailable from:
And on that note, This Song Will Save Your Life goes to show that depression doesn’t look just one way. In it, 16-year-old Elise Dembowski is driven by years of bullying and loneliness to a half-hearted attempt at suicide. But then she stumbles across a chance at a new life, as a DJ. “The emotional resonance of Elise’s journey … feels very much of the moment,” writes Jen Doll in The New York Times.Available from:
History Is All You Left Me
In the wake of terrible loss — the death of his first love and best friend — Griffin begins to teeter on the edge of debilitating OCD. As Silvera told Publishers Weekly, “I think it’s better to write about the stuff I’m dealing with – Griffin’s OCD 100 percent mirrors my own – than to walk around with stuff and not examine it. Whenever I’m writing, it’s always from some place of therapy: me getting over a breakup, me facing a challenge, but I leave it on the page.”
Girl in Pieces
Cutting and attempted suicide drive the plot of Girl in Pieces, the debut novel from Kathleen Glasgow. But it’s 17-year-old Charlie’s fierce instinct for survival that keeps the story going. “Like most issue books, this is not an easy read, but it's poignant and transcendent as Charlie breaks more and more before piecing herself back together,” writes Kirkus. Glasgow’s 2020 novel, How to Make Friends with the Dark, touches on a similar theme of surviving unbearable grief.
Highly Illogical Behavior
As part of a plan to get into college, Lisa Praytor wants to free her former classmate Solomon Reed of his debilitating agoraphobia. But it’s obviously not as simple as that. As Publishers Weekly explains, this is a lighter take on the topic of mental health: “Printz Award–winner Whaley ... tackles heavy, heady topics with a light touch, populating his perceptive and quick-witted story with endearing, believably flawed teens.”
How It Feels to Float
How It Feels to Float is the story of 17-year-old Biz, who is awash in depression, grief, and undiagnosed, intergenerational mental illness, as she navigates her teen years without her father — who took his own life a decade before. “Biz’s mental health crisis, which primarily takes the form of hallucinations, dissociation, and panic attacks, is portrayed with raw, vivid authenticity,” writes Kirkus.
A World Without You
“A World Without You was the book I never intended to write,” Revis told Publishers Weekly, who made her name in science fiction. In this, her first contemporary novel, 17-year-old Bo meets his girlfriend Sofia at Berkshire Academy, where the students have one primary thing in common: severe mental illness. When Sofia commits suicide, Bo is convinced he can find her by traveling through time. A World Without You is both a psychological thriller and a deeply personal effort by Revis. “Once I had the mental health aspect in the novel, it shifted into very personal territory, forcing me to write the truths I’d learned growing up with a brother with mental health issues,” she says.
Click here to find resources and support for those struggling with mental illness.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated in 2020.