Mental Health and the YA Fantasy Genre

Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve posted here, and I’m sure my poor blog is feeling quite neglected. *pats blog* But after recently reading an indie novel, I was reminded of my YA Fantasy pet-peeve, and I need to rant about it. And what better place to rant than a blog, eh?

I should probably prelude this post by mentioning that I’ve grown up surrounded by mental illness. I have many relatives with conditions such as bipolar disorder, personality disorders, major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. So while I personally don’t have any mental health issues, I’ve become rather sensitive to how people approach topics such as mental illness.

And this leads to one of my strongest pet-peeves in YA Fantasy: When a character from the “real world” discovers magic or other paranormal aspects, and assumes they’ve gone insane. The author then proceeds to send a barrage of unhealthy messages to the reader about mental illnesses.

At its core, there’s nothing wrong with a character mistakenly thinking they’re experiencing things outside of reality. If I stumbled across a wardrobe-portal or a sparkly vampire, my first assumption would be that I was hallucinating. It’s totally natural for humans to try to find logical explanations for illogical events.

But my pet-peeve arises not from this insanity trope, but from the way it’s usually handled by authors. In most YA Fantasy where this trope is used, one of these three things usually happens, and seeing all three of them isn’t uncommon:

1. The character never tells any authority figure what’s going on. This is usually done out of shame–they’re so horrified and embarrassed by their “hallucinations” of paranormal events, that they refuse to tell anyone about it.

2. The character vehemently tries to deny that anything is wrong. Once again, this is usually a result of shame and embarrassment. Instead of approaching the “hallucinations” from a logical standpoint–they need to get help, they need to see a doctor, they need to make sure they’re safe–the character refuses to admit that their “mental illness” is potentially harmful to their emotional and/or medical well-being.

3. When the character discovers that the “mental illness” is actually the result of real magic, they’re instantly relieved. It doesn’t matter that a demon is chasing them, that a werewolf is trying to kill them, that their family is in danger from a vengeful witch. To the character, all of this is preferable to having a mental illness.

These three things send terrible, potentially damaging messages. Essentially, the author is teaching the reader that mental illness is something to be horribly ashamed of, and it should be kept hidden whenever possible. Which is totally, utterly, completely untrue. If you talk to any credible psychologist, they will explain that mental illness isn’t something brought on by personal weakness or deliberate intent. In fact, mental illnesses are just like physical illness in many ways, including that it’s not the “fault” of the patient. And in many cases, mental illness is technically a physical illness on a more microscopic level. The physical lack of certain hormones, proteins, and chemicals in the human body often cause mental illnesses, and many of these deficiencies are related to genetics.

Yet these authors ignore all these facts. Maybe they’re not intentionally spreading a horrible message, but they are. And worse, they’re spreading it to an audience of teens, who often don’t know enough about mental illnesses to differentiate between true and untrue statements. Not only that, but teenagers are also notoriously prone to low self-esteem, which makes it easy for readers to embrace negative perspectives of mental illness. And if this isn’t bad enough, there’s the fact that a huge percentage of mental illnesses begin to show symptoms in the teenage years, and this is a vital time to support a person with mental illness, instead of bad-mouthing their condition.

I know a lot of authors don’t write this trope with the intention of sending a harmful message. I know most of them don’t even realize they’re doing it. But that doesn’t change the fact that mental illness needs to be approached delicately and thoughtfully, whether in a Contemporary Romance novel or an Urban Fantasy. Genre doesn’t matter–mental illness should never be inserted into a book carelessly. It’s not just some convenient plot point or an easy way to ramp up the tension; this sort of illness is a challenging reality millions of people face, and it should be treated with the utmost care and respect.

Okay, so that completes my ranting for the day. Phew! I’d love to hear your personal opinion on mental health in YA novels. How delicately do you think it should be treated? And can you think of any novels that handle the subject exceptionally well?