Mental Illness in YA: Rehabilitating Sick-Lit
When one thinks of narratives about mental illness, the characters described are no longer limited to the subversive and villainous. Instead, mental illness narratives are taking on a new role: one of healing, growth and acceptance. Twenty percent of teens worldwide are affected by a mental illness; it is clear that this is an important topic to address (WHO). However, it has also recently brought certain questions into the forefront of discussions regarding how these stories are written. Dubbed “sick-lit” in news outlets such as The Daily Mail and The Globe and Mail, there is an aura of concern around an otherwise excellent genre of young adult fiction. Concerned parents and journalists have argued that some stories involving mental illness prompt young readers to harm themselves or become depressed. In light of recent criticism, some have questioned whether it is possible for a sick-lit narrative to maintain a good balance between realistic representation and sensationalizing otherwise serious topics. The notion of rehabilitation in sick-lit may have a history of being romanticized, but in recent years a resurgence of new stories seem to be doing just the opposite. Although it is the protagonists who are affected by a serious illness, is sick-lit itself the one being rehabilitated? While there are a number of recent YA novels that normalize mental illness, for the sake of deeper clarity, this article will focus on a single text to examine a new way of narrating mental illness stories.
What is Sick-Lit?
Sick-lit is not new. In the Victorian Era, it focused largely on protagonists with consumption. As a sub-genre in the 1980’s, it predominantly featured young, sickly white girls who found their salvation through handsome love interests and wore makeup so that they could maintain the appearance of wellness until they were either cured or died tragically. Narratives of rehabilitation in the 1980’s also focused on a protagonist’s transition from being different to conforming to cultural norms. In her article Nothing Feels as Real: Teen Sick-Lit, Sadness, and the Condition of Adolescence, Julie Passanante Elman writes that “Teen sick-lit materialized…offering a good cry as a form of rehabilitative treatment for still-malleable teen proto-citizens,” suggesting that sick-lit narratives served as a way to instruct their young readers on how to “get over” an illness rather than finding acceptance from within. This outlook on illness, is problematic.
The “Problem” Narrative
Where earlier stories are maligned for simplifying narratives by making illness a “problem” to overcome, there is another trend that creates a more realistic portrayal of characters who are affected by an illness. Narratives focusing on treatment as a normal part of life and therapists who are depicted as positive helpers on the protagonists’ journey are the new norm.
In The Rest of Us Just Live Here, when Mikey talks about his therapist, he says “This should be the place where I make fun of [Dr. Luther], where I put her in my past as a goofy hippie chick; a lonely lady, soft as a wild herb, looking at us poor, wounded kids with the eyes of a fawn. Except, she wasn’t” (179). Not only do readers get a sense that Dr. Luther is respected by Mikey, but also it is clear that going to therapy is not at the centre of Mikey’s struggle. Certainly it is a part of his life throughout the story, but the fact that visiting his therapist is a normal occurrence suggests to readers that having OCD isn’t something that Mikey can or will “get over.”
In an interview for The Walrus, Teresa Toten talks about her own experience writing about OCD in her novel The Hero of Room 13B. She says, “For most sufferers of mental illness, my personal view is that you have to learn to make friends with it and accept it, because it’s most likely never going to go away completely. It’s something that is a part of you.” What this suggests is that the trend in sick-lit is shifting towards portraying characters that love themselves because they are different. Part of the rehabilitation of this genre involves re-defining how readers come to understand the treatment process as a positive, ongoing part of life.
Is Love the Best Medicine?
If rehabilitating the notion of therapy in literature means de-stigmatizing the ongoing process, there is still the issue of romance within YA books that also deal with mental illness. Some of the criticism from the media has expressed concern over narratives that use romance as a way for characters to experience healing.
In The Daily Mail, Tanith Carey writes that “the genre encourages young girls to believe that the most important thing to worry about when facing serious illness is whether boys still fancy them.” Clearly this is a problematic way to look at illness, but it is also not the only narrative available to young readers.
Towards the conclusion of Ness’ book, Mikey’s best friend and one-time love interest Jarod, attempts to heal Mikey using his godly powers. Critical readers might examine this moment from the view that once again, love has managed to conquer all, including Mikey’s OCD. However, Mikey says, “But you can’t. That’s always been too complex” (301). Even when he is offered the option of being cured, Mikey turns it down. Romance in this fictional world is more like one facet of a supportive network of caring people. Love does not cure Mikey, even though within the world that Ness creates it is certainly possible.
What makes this a good story is not the fact that OCD is addressed at all. Instead, it is the excitement of escaping from otherworldly creatures and coming to terms with heartbreak. By sidestepping the clichéd plot device of healing through romance, Patrick Ness manages to tell a meaningful story that brings the struggles of teens with OCD to light without making it the main event.
What makes these stories enjoyable and meaningful is not because they deal with serious issues, but rather that they couple darker issues with other struggles that many teens have experienced. Rather than romanticizing mental illness, it would appear that the best narratives are rooted in the relatable.
Truth is Stranger than Fiction
When considering what a relatable narrative about mental illness might look like, it is imperative to consider who is allowed to write these stories? What makes the rehabilitation of sick-lit complicated is the idea that if one writes about mental illness in the wrong way, it might romanticize the notion of having that illness. And yet, if writers suppress narratives that discuss it, they isolate those who are affected by mental illness.
Sarah Jae-Jones argues that, “The only way to mitigate problematic views of mental illness is to give voice to the character with mental illness” (Disability in Kidlit). Although this is not a new sentiment, in recent years, the voice given to characters with mental illness is borne out of personal experience. Perhaps part of the re-imagining, or “rehabilitation” of these sick-lit narratives means writing from a place of emotional honesty? While it is certainly not a prerequisite for writing narratives involving mental illness, authors such as John Corey Whaley and Patrick Ness have been open about their own experiences with mental illness that inspired them to write about it.
In an interview for Entertainment, Patrick Ness said that, “…I remember myself being consumed with [anxiety]. What’s going to happen? What am I going to do next? It manifests itself in different ways, and for me it manifested itself as really quite bad OCD. Like Mikey, I worked in a restaurant, and like Mikey, there was a time when I would wash my hands so often that they would bleed because I washed all of the oil out of them… . I want to write about this in a true way, where it’s not an issue with a capital ‘I,’ but it’s what this guy is going through.” Considering that Mikey’s OCD takes on a similar form in The Rest of Us Just Live Here, it is easy to see how the authenticity of Mikey’s voice has been inspired by Ness’ own experiences. Perhaps in part the re-imagining, or “rehabilitation” of these sick-lit narratives means writing from a place of emotional honesty?
The New Fictional Reality
We are living in a renaissance of understanding for issues such as mental illness. While the effects and realities of living with mental illnesses are real, it is clear that to dispel stigmatization and romantic notions of mental illness, narratives that successfully rehabilitate the genre subvert popular assumptions.
Rachel Wilson, author of Don’t Touch, writes that, “Because of their proximity to real life, we credit these stories with a special potential to guide or mislead teen readers… to help cause harm,” and perhaps in some ways this is true. In equal measure, narratives that approach serious issues such as mental illness have the potential to inspire readers to have a clearer understanding of real issues, to challenge popular notions of otherwise mystified illnesses and above all, to feel a little bit less alone.
Further Reading: A Rehabilitated Reading List
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini
Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, Teresa Toten
Highly Illogical Behaviour, John Corey Whaley
Finding Audrey, Sophie Kinsella
The Nature of Jade, by Deb Caletti
Mosquitoland, David Arnold
Bell, Amanda. “John Corey Whaley Talks Hightly Illogical Behaviour and the Prevalence of Mental Illness in YA Novels.” MTV. 10. Oct. 2016. Web. 20 July 2016.
Carey, Tanith. “The Sick-Lit Books Aimed at Children: It’s a Disturbing Phenomenon.” The Daily Mail. 3 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 July 2016.
CTV News Staff. “‘Sick-lit’ Popular Among Youth, Raising Alarms in Literary Circles.” CTV News. 22 March. 2013. Web. 20 July 2016.
Elman, Julie Pasanante. “Nothing Feels as Real: Teen Sick-Lit, Sadness, and the Condition of Adolescence.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. May 1, 2012.
Lewis, Megan. “Patrick Ness on Writing Fantastical Fiction for Teens in The Rest of Us Just Live Here.” Entertainment. N.p., 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 July 2016.
Ness, Patrick. The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Harper Teen. New York; 2015.
Toten, Teresa. “Teresa Toten: An Interview With the Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature.” The Walrus. 23 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 July 2016.
Townsend, Alex. et al. “Romanticizing Mental Illness.” Disability in KidLit. 23 May 2015. Web. 20 July 2016.
Wilson, Rachel. “Mental Illness in YA is a Minefield: Explore at Will.” Stacked. 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 July 2016.
World Health Organization. “10 Facts on Mental Illness.” WHO. Web. 13 Aug 2016.
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