The two final paragraphs from this blog post really resonated with me last week when I read them. Everyone knows mental illness exists, everyone knows that the effects of mental illness can be terrible, and yet, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s not a pleasant topic, but it’s one that needs to be addressed and needs to be approached with more honesty and compassion.
Over the last year, depression and suicide have seen more time in the spotlight. Ned Vizzini’s suicide, followed by Robin Williams’s — and the near 40,000 suicides that happen per year in the US — make it clear we need to be talking about this more. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. While depression is not indicative of suicide, the two are linked together in a way that makes talking about them in tandem make sense.
There’s a mythology that surrounds depression and suicide, particularly when it comes to creative types. It’s a mythology that’s exceptionally destructive and belittling to all those who suffer from mental illness, and it’s this: that that anguish is what causes the best work to happen.
Following Williams’s death, I read the comment far too often that creative people are most likely to suffer because that suffering is where art is born. It tends to be the complete opposite. Creative types don’t see depression as what drives them. The best work isn’t made when they’re down, but rather, when artists are up. When down and the work isn’t coming together, it actually further fuels the depression/anxiety cycle, making it even more difficult to create and engage in a healthy way. Myra McEntire and Stephanie Perkins have both written about this and the ways that depression has impacted not just their careers, but their personal lives, as well.
Part of why people believe and engage in this myth telling is because it’s easier than trying to make sense of an illness that often doesn’t appear to have a root cause. How could someone talented or successful be depressed? How can someone who seems to have it all together find it difficult to get out of bed, to take a shower, to want to talk with the people who love and care about them? When people choose to look at an illness through that set of lenses, they blame the victim, rather than educate themselves on the disease.
When we do that, we further stigmatize those who are suffering from depression, making them less likely to seek treatment or practice necessary self-care and preservation.
One of the most memorable moments of my career in librarianship came at the very end. I’ve worked with teens for many years, and one of the reasons I like working with them and advocating for them is because they’re far more likely to be open minded and receptive to ideas and tough discussions than adults can be. But nothing really got to me and emphasized the importance of having resources available — and being a resource myself through listening, advocating, and being in tune with the array of challenges teens face — than when a teen got up during one of our programs and delivered a piece of slam poetry about a friend.
She’d been quiet during the event. Her cousin had been urging her to get up in front of the (small) group of mostly adults and some teens who’d come to the program. She’d written something while listening to other performances, and her cousin really hoped she’d share.
After she performed the piece, she stood at the front and accepted the audience applause shyly. But she didn’t leave the front of the room. She stood there, as if she needed to say more or explain what her piece was about. With more encouragement from her family, she explained that her friend had committed suicide just days ago, and the piece was a tribute to her friend.
The room went silent. People didn’t try to distract themselves. They sat. They’d heard exactly what she said and took it in, thinking about not just what that meant on a grand level, but what it meant right here and right now for a young teen girl to get up and express her feelings about the situation while the wounds were so fresh. What do you do with that? What can you do with that?
When the event was over, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t approach her, offering kind words or a hug. Many had said something after they’d collected themselves, encouraging her never to stop working through her feelings with words like she’d just done. And that she’d done so openly.
I put together a display in the teen area the next day of books about “tough issues”: realistic fiction tackling mental illness and suicide. I knew if one girl who was hurting, others were, too. The books did not last long on the display. People were looking for these stories. And as I saw again on social media in the wake of Williams’s suicide, people were asking for books about depression and suicide. Books and art, of course, are ways into talking about mental illness and suicide, as they allow a space for thinking, for considering, and for making sense of them privately.
That’s why hearing a teen girl sharing a poem about it left such an impact. She shared.
With that, here’s a thick list of YA titles that explore depression and/or suicide. Again, these aren’t inextricably linked: one can be depressed and never suicidal, while one can be suicidal and it’s not borne of depression. Likewise, depression is often linked to other mental illness, but I’ve tried to focus on those stories where depression is the primary force. I’ve limited myself to realistic fiction, but feel free to offer up additional titles within any genre of YA in the comments. These stories focus on depression and/or suicide from a wide array of perspectives.
All descriptions are from WorldCat. A handful of additional titles, which I’ve not included on my list, can be found at Disability in KidLit.
I Swear by Lane Davis: After Leslie Gatlin kills herself, her bullies reflect on how things got so far.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: When high school student Clay Jenkins receives a box in the mail containing thirteen cassette tapes recorded by his classmate Hannah, who committed suicide, he spends a bewildering and heartbreaking night crisscrossing their town, listening to Hannah’s voice recounting the events leading up to her death.
Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta: Sixteen-year-old Francesca could use her outspoken mother’s help with the problems of being one of a handful of girls at a parochial school that has just turned co-ed, but her mother has suddenly become severely depressed.
Fat Kid Rules The World by K. L. Going: Seventeen-year-old Troy, depressed, suicidal, and weighing nearly 300 pounds, gets a new perspective on life when a homeless teenager who is a genius on guitar wants Troy to be the drummer in his rock band.
Hold Still by Nina LaCour: Ingrid didn’t leave a note. Three months after her best friend’s suicide, Caitlin finds what she left instead: a journal, hidden under Caitlin’s bed.
Impulse by Ellen Hopkins: Three teens who meet at Reno, Nevada’s Aspen Springs mental hospital after each has attempted suicide connect with each other in a way they never have with their parents or anyone else in their lives.
By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters: High school student Daelyn Rice, who’s been bullied throughout her school career and has more than once attempted suicide, again makes plans to kill herself, in spite of the persistent attempts of an unusual boy to draw her out.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick: A day in the life of a suicidal teen boy saying good-bye to the four people who matter most to him.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales: Nearly a year after a failed suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Elise discovers that she has the passion, and the talent, to be a disc jockey.
The Death of Jayson Porter by Jaime Adoff: In the Florida projects, sixteen-year-old Jayson struggles with the harsh realities of his life which include an abusive mother, a drug-addicted father, and not fitting in at his predominately white school, and bring him to the brink of suicide.
Survive by Alex Morel: A troubled girl is stranded in an arctic winter terrain after a plane crash and must fight for survival with the only other boy left alive.
Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard: The summer Ryan is released from a mental hospital following his suicide attempt, he meets Nicki, who gets him to share his darkest secrets while hiding secrets of her own.
And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard: Sent to an Amherst, Massachusetts, boarding school after her ex-boyfriend shoots himself, seventeen-year-old Emily expresses herself through poetry as she relives their relationship, copes with her guilt, and begins to heal.
Crash Into Me by Albert Borris: Four suicidal teenagers go on a “celebrity suicide road trip,” visiting the graves of famous people who have killed themselves, with the intention of ending their lives in Death Valley, California.
Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams: Living with their mother who earns money as a prostitute, two sisters take care of each other and when the older one attempts suicide, the younger one tries to uncover the reason.
Fall For Anything by Courtney Summers: As she searches for clues that would explain the suicide of her successful photographer father, Eddie Reeves meets the strangely compelling Culler Evans who seems to know a great deal about her father and could hold the key to the mystery surrounding his death.
Saving June by Hannah Harrington: After her sister’s suicide, Harper Scott takes off for California with her best friend Laney to scatter her sister’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.
Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford: Brimming with sarcasm, fifteen-year-old Jeff describes his stay in a psychiatric ward after attempting to commit suicide.
Blackbox by Julie Schumacher: When Dora, Elena’s older sister, is diagnosed with depression and has to be admitted to the hospital, Elena can’t seem to make sense of their lives anymore. At school, the only people who acknowledge Elena are Dora’s friends and Jimmy Zenk–who failed at least one grade and wears black every day of the week. And at home, Elena’s parents keep arguing with each other. Elena will do anything to help her sister get better and get their lives back to normal–even when the responsibility becomes too much to bear.
Everything Is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis: When her father leaves for a job out of town, Mazzy is left at home to try to cope with her mother, who has been severely depressed since the death of Mazzy’s baby sister.
Silhouetted By The Blue by Traci L. Jones: After the death of her mother in an automobile accident, seventh-grader Serena, who has gotten the lead in her middle school play, is left to handle the day-to-day challenges of caring for herself and her younger brother when their father cannot pull himself out of his depression.
Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick: An emotionally damaged sixteen-year-old girl begins a relationship with a deeply troubled older man.
Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern: When her parents confine her to a mental hospital, an overweight teenaged girl, who suffers from panic attacks, describes her experiences in a series of letters to a friend.
Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith: The discovery of a startling family secret leads seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd from a protected and naive life into a summer of mental illness, first love, and profound self-discovery. *Read Hilary’s guest post on mental illness in YA fiction, too, while you’re at it.
Crazy by Amy Reed: Connor and Izzy, two teens who met at a summer art camp in the Pacific Northwest where they were counselors, share a series of emails in which they confide in one another, eventually causing Connor to become worried when he realizes that Izzy’s emotional highs and lows are too extreme. This book deals with bipolar disorder.
Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang (September 9): One cold fall day, high school junior Liz Emerson steers her car into a tree. This haunting and heartbreaking story is told by a surprising and unexpected narrator and unfolds in nonlinear flashbacks even as Liz’s friends, foes, and family gather at the hospital and Liz clings to life.