As an author, I owe it to my readers to present a realistic, inclusive world. Whether we have an own voices story to tell, or our experience comes from research, it is important that readers can see themselves in a book. Recently, this has meant ensuring diversity is included as well as LGBTQ+, disability, chronic illness and mental health, to name a few.
The diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions is still in its infancy and we have a long way to go before the stigma is erased. One of the key changes should be, in my opinion, the very title “mental health,” which can promote negative responses. In turn, people hide away their concerns and doubts and don’t get the help they need. Do you remember being called “mental,” “nuts,” “or schizo” on the school playground? It’s these words that have perpetuated a negative stigma that we must work hard to erase. Mental health conditions are only, in fact, mental when it comes to their association with the brain. Chemical imbalances and “faulty” wiring are what’s to blame, not because someoneisn’t strong enough to deal or needs to pull their socks up. You’d never think of telling a diabetic that it’s all in their head and they don’t really need insulin. Faced with judgement from friends, parents and medical staff, it’s no wonder why wo many people don’t get the help they need.
Our teenage years can be some of the most emotional and impressionable, as not only our bodies go through significant changes, but so does the development of our brains. Therefore, it is especially important that we shine a light on the problems teenagers face and show them how to fight their way through. Especially with the intrusion of social media onto our daily lives. It used to be if you were bullied at school, at least you could leave the experience at the door when you came home and feel as though you were in a safe place. Now, with social media, the bully can walk in the door with you. How do you get away from that?
During my years growing up in the States. It was common practice to employ a guidance counsellor on staff permanently. There to help guide students during issues of bullying, lost homework, or truancy, they were also the first port of call to spot more serious problems. And of course they could lend an ear if a student was willing to seek them out. If we had such a practice in the UK, perhaps the NHS waiting times for therapy wouldn’t be quite so overwhelmed. And it is widely acknowledged that Americans are more accepting of mental health support.
During the sensitive teenage years, kids often clamp down on their emotions, are unable to find the words to talk about how they are feeling or are just plain embarrassed about having a problem. Many avoid seeking help. If I, as an author, can show them support in books, to make them feel a little less alone, to normalize their condition, then it’s an important and responsible role.
When I was fifteen, I spent a year with anorexia and it took a tremendous amount of strength and family support to fight my way through. At the time, even though I was at a private girls’school where the library was well stocked, I found only one book that deal with the issue. Unable to put into words how I was feeling, I was able to hand that book to my mother and say “this.” It’s good to see that many more books are being released around the topic, my favorite of this year so far The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen.
That wasn’t my only brush with a mental health problem. While I was at university, two of my friends died from Meningitis and the experience catapulted me into an anxiety disorder which I still live with today. It took me many years, hours of therapy, three different psychologists and the unending support of my parents and husband to find myself in a functional place. I have my ups and downs and will continue to do so. I have been down the journey of denial, anger, and am finally at acceptance (mostly). But at the time, I never found a novel that showed what I was going through. Yes, there were self-help books and textbooks etc, and I educated myself on the physiological symptoms pf panic attacks, but I wanted to know I was ok how I was. That I didn’t need to change. That it wasn’t my fault. And, I believe, the only way to show people with mental health issues that they are not at fault, is to give them a voice on the page. Show how normal it is. Take the stigma away. Let’s raise our teenagers with the confidence to be ok in their own skin and that they don’t have to hide from help. The message here: You don’t have to be fixed.
As a result of my experiences, I often include mental health issues in my own writing. My debut book, The Shadow Keepers, was released on July 30th and follows a sixteen-year-old girl who sees shadowy creatures in mirrors. When no one believes her and after years of being tormented, she develops anxiety and OCD. When she is remanded to the UK’s best mental health hospital, she knows she will have to face her fears, face the shadows. But there is a unique strength in those who have mental health issues in the book, and it is only them who can destroy these insidious monsters.
I’ve chosen the supernatural setting so that the introduction into the mental health aspect isn’t forced or preachy. It often helps to view a serious issue within a fantastical setting so that the problem, which the reader may also experience, isn’t too close for comfort and can be read at a comfortable distance while also providing entertainment.
In conclusion, although we are seeing good strides forward in the identification and treatment of mental health problems, we have a long way to go. In the meantime, I’d like to see a variety of these issues reflected within mainstream commercial novels that teens can read to increase their awareness and to feel solidarity among their peers.
You can find me at my website: www.MarisaNoelle.com or come say hi to me on Twitter where I’m very vocal about mental health @MarisaNoelle77