YA literature is a genre not just limited to young adults. And if you’ve read some of the contemporary YA literature of recent years, you might have noticed a common trend: mental health tropes are used as the backdrop of most of these books. Even though the genre is typically used to uncritically present a teenage perspective, I can’t help but think how the authors are tackling hardcore issues like mental health in such a tactless way.

Mental health is a complicated issue. Coping with mental health and recovering from it is not a linear process. Even if you recover, you have relapses. Recently, YA books have portrayed mental health and its recovery process to be something linear.

For example, most of the YA books set up the whole book based on imminent mental health struggles. Firstly, the protagonist is written off as a character with ‘quirky’ personality traits which are more of struggling mental health symptoms. They then sensationalize the illness by revolving the conversation around a love interest. Then the authors proceed to give the story its climax by showing that mental health is something salvageable by love interests.

The YA books are buzzing with these sort of storylines, where mental health has been stigmatized.

How YA novels stigmatize mental health

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why – the 2007 novel, not the TV show with its unnecessary 4 seasons – is a perfect example of how mental health in YA books is portrayed as unrealistic and sensational.

Despite relating to Hannah’s mental health struggles, there was something not quite right about how her issues were being portrayed. The book is focused on the psychology of a teen who commits suicide due to bullying. The psychological reasons portrayed in this book that led to her suicide have been sensualized to the point that it got all of our brows raised. Secondly, the whole plot behind her suicide was to get revenge on her bullies. This sends out a wrong message to the audience. The book deals with suicide in a way that triggers emotional distress in the audience.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought Thirteen Reasons Why sensationalized Hannah’s struggle with mental health, the TV show came under a lot of fire by the critics, and rightfully so.

There are countless other books with similar problematic portrayals, for example, My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga. Warga’s tale follows two 16-year-olds who are obsessing over plotting their own deaths – arguably, a very unusual and sensitive issue for a plot, but it gets worse. As the book progresses, the two protagonists who have an intense background of domestic abuse and trauma, fall in love. 

SPOILER ALERT: Teenage love comes to the rescue in the end! All of a sudden their mental illness is cured, one of the protagonists stops the other one from committing suicide, and they live happily ever after with their newfound love! Very realistic. Not.

Warga’s story not only simplifies the recovery process, but also romanticizes the trauma by portraying an unrealistic presentation of mental illness. It feeds on the problematic narrative that falling in love is the solution to every problem.

Recovering from mental illness is NOT as easy as falling in love, and this narrative takes away the messy aspect of recovery. YA authors should be careful when conflating mental health issues with other archetypes such as romantic love. This is breeding the mainstream perception that sadness and the blues that result from depression can all be fixed with love. 

You read about protagonists being romanticized by their love interest for their ‘quirky’ suicidal tendencies, and the love interest jumping in with their agenda of “I can save you with my love”.  In books like these, it’s always the ones with the “quirky” music taste, fashion sense, and custom-made Vans, that are mentally unwell. These are the people that need to be “saved” and the climax of most of these problematic books is one saving the other with their romantic love. 

These authors are writing a story out of romanticizing and sensualizing mental health. No wonder there has been a recent influx of “I can fix you” books and movies that breed and glorify relationships that are just not practical.

The contemporary YA books have reduced mental health to a mere trope, limited to one spectrum. And it’s especially detrimental to the readers of this genre who are the most vulnerable. These authors are inadvertently shaping a cultural phenomenon where mental health is seen as something easy— only to be saved by romantic love. 

YA authors need to be careful while writing about it and not further stigmatizing it. This stigmatization falls under the same category as toxic positivity where mental health struggles are overgeneralized. How many times have you come across characters in these books who have the habit of washing their hands frequently and having it termed as “OCD”? Multiple.

The culture of reducing mental health to a trope or the mental health symptoms to ‘quirky’ traits’ has its own effects. This culture has given birth to a new lexicon where people have replaced ‘sadness’ and feeling hygienic with more clinical terms like ‘depression’ and ‘OCD’. Not only have these books managed to stigmatize mental health, but they’ve also reduced its significance by taking away its clinical aspects.

The mental health trope has become repetitive. These books barely touch on the topic of self-love, self-discovery, and self-exploration – all of which are crucial to mental health. Even the arduous journey of recovering from a mental illness isn’t linear like it is shown in these books. It’s much more realistic that way and reinforces a positive understanding among its reader about mental health. 

Mental health representation in YA books needs to be better because studies have found that it has a huge effect on teens. Authors have a huge power over how teens and young adult readers perceive mental health. 

Mental health conversations don’t need to revolve around love interests or quirky personality types. It’d be nice to see a more realistic portrayal of the protagonist struggling with therapy, self-love, friendships helping with the recovery process, and embarking on a trajectory of self-discovery, for a change. Maybe a story about the stress that comes from living with a mentally struggling parent or partner? Or even a story on struggling with mental health in college? It’s more realistic and practical and most importantly, doesn’t adversely affect the readers. 

We need more nuanced storylines. YA authors owe it to their young impressionable audience to do a better job of portraying mental health in their books. Conversations about mental health have finally made it to mainstream media. It’s time that YA writers also critically approach mental health in their books, rather than falling for age-old, and incorrect, stereotypes. 

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  • Usraat Fahmidah

    Usraat Fahmidah is a freelance writer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her prose and fiction have been published in several anthologies and publications like WIRED. She has done extensive research in the field of development economics and policy research encompassing education. Her interests include South Asian politics, inclusive education, philosophy, civics media, feminism and AI ethics. Her journalistic work can be seen in VICE, Dhaka Tribune and Youth Journalism International. When she's not juggling all these work, you can find her ranting about books on her blog and finding muse for her next poetry piece.