Mental Illness, Trauma, & YA Author Responsibility

CW: discussions of mental illness and trauma (including suicidal ideation) in fiction and in real life, brief mention of Thirteen Reasons Why, swearing

rough wooden carving of a person clutching their head with an anguished expression

“Depression” by Bobby McKay (can be reused under CC-BY-ND license)

This is not a critique of the Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why, which I have no intention of watching. This is not a critique of any YA literature related portrayals of mental illness and/or trauma. Instead, this is an unpacking of some of the questions and thoughts I’ve been carrying as an aspiring YA writer with a mental illness since articles about 13 Reasons Why first appeared on my Facebook news feed. Questions I’d love the opportunity to discuss with more writers and readers of YA.

Questions like, “What should authentic portrayals of mental illness look like in the context of YA lit?” From the day I started writing YA, I have been obsessed with being as accurate and authentic as possible in every aspect of my stories. But what is the responsible course of action when the authentic truth is fucking awful?

If I want to write a teenage character who experiences suicidal ideation the way I did as a teenager, should I limit how far down that hole of hopelessness they fall? Can I be completely honest about how alluring death can be in that head space or would that glamorize suicide? Could my truth, shared fully, have a negative impact on readers? If so, how do I moderate the truth in hopes of maintaining their emotional safety?

How do I show the rawness of suffering in ways that increase understanding but not harm? How do I know how far is too far? How do I respect the, at times, all-consuming pain I saw in my teenage friends who lived through trauma without seeming to glorify that pain? How do I make space for kids who need to see accurate representations of shitty mental health experiences in order to feel empowered to take a step towards talking to someone about their mental health without alienating kids who might find representation that’s too accurate triggering?

What is my responsibility as an adult who still writes YA? To be honest? To do no harm? To be developmentally appropriate, of course, but, again, how far is too far when we’re talking about the real experiences of mental illness teenagers live? How do I protect and respect the kids for whom I’m writing?

I have no answers, but I think it is still important to put the questions out there. Some teenagers need to be able to see the painful, trying, even traumatic aspects of their experiences in YA in order to combat the stigma around mental health they could be internalizing as well as self-deprecating thoughts they might have. I don’t know what I would have done without access to YA featuring mental illness and trauma as a teenager. YA was one of the few healthy coping mechanisms I had. That being said, as an adult, I have a better understanding of the risk some portrayals of mental illness and trauma pose. I want to be able to carry an awareness of both of those in my writing.  I hope being honest about these questions will help me do so.

Angélique

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