September 4, 2011

Guest Post: Depression and YA Lit

Ashley from Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing is dropping by today to discuss depression in YA! Here's her guest post:

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses. Different sources will give you different numbers on how common it actually is, but it's something that more people face than most realize. I am by no means an expert on either Depression or Depression in YA, but I wanted to talk about it briefly, get some thoughts and some discussion going.

Depression in YA is more common than I think most people realize. While there are some books out there that are openly about depression, like It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, where the main character spends time in a psychiatric ward when his depression makes him contemplate suicide. Or other books, like Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, and Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, where a character (not the main) sinks so far into depression they are unable to leave their beds.

But in other instances, depression is a very strong reality for the characters, often the main characters, even if it's never openly identified as such. Like in Saving Francesca. Her mother's depression hits Francesca really hard and if you watch her closely, you can see that although not as severe as her mother's Francesca is depressed as well. Tom from Marchetta's The Piper's Son, Parker from Courtney Summers Cracked Up to Be, Tyler from Laurie Halse Anderson's Twisted, Melinda from Speak all exhibit symptoms of depression. You can make cases for or against most of these characters and many, many others who suffer from depression. When writing about high school, depression is something that often naturally comes through in characters, whether it is ever labeled or not.

Depression is such a real thing, and it affects so very many people. Whether it's been diagnosed or treated or not, odds are that someone you know suffers from depression. It can stem from or manifest itself as guilt, low self-worth, feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and it often also comes with a change in physical behavior, be it sleep or eating habits, or activity levels. Its effect can range from mild to severe and it affects everyone differently.

I feel like lately, there have been more novels dealing with 'symptoms' of depression released, even if not all of them address the depression itself (for example, Thirteen Reasons Why, Scars, and Ballads of Suburbia). This does not mean these books are wrong or not worth reading, since things like suicide or cutting very often stem from depression. But it doesn't always have a physical manifestation. Very often, it's something that locks a person inside themselves. I've known people close to me who have suffered from depression, and some of them mask it well enough that people don't see it. It's so easy to overlook a teenager with depression. Teens are supposed to be moody and standoffish toward adults, so when they are, it's no surprise. But depression goes far beyond typical teen angst. It's something works its way inside you and sinks in.

So many people view depression as sadness. And while being sad is certainly a part of depression, it is not the same thing. Someone mourning the death of a loved one isn't automatically depressed. They are grief stricken. It might become depression, but it's not the same thing. Depression is something deeper than sadness. And it's something that is really hard to pin down, because so many people experience so many different things while depressed.

It's something that's very real, very painful and can be very scary. It's also something I wish people would be more educated on. It's not something that just 'goes away' or can be easily 'gotten over'. It's an illness. We don't tell someone with a broken leg to suck it up and walk anyway, so why on earth are we telling people with mental illness to just get better? Perhaps, the more books are written about it, and the more people who read them, the more knowledgeable and tolerant we will become. And I can't see that as a bad thing.

Ashley has been fascinated by the mind since before she can remember and decided long before college that Psychology would be her field of study. She received a BS in Psychology and is currently deciding where it should take her next. Ashley would like it to be made clear that she is not an expert in the field, and that the thoughts and feelings expressed are hers derived from both academic and personal study and experience.  

Thanks, Ashley, for sharing your insights on this topic

Readers — have you read YA books in which the protagonist, or a side character, experiences depression? What did you think about how it was shown?


  1. Excellent post!

    "We don't tell someone with a broken leg to suck it up and walk anyway, so why on earth are we telling people with mental illness to just get better?"

    I think that goes back to what you said about people often confusing depression and sadness (loved that point you made, btw). A person can be sad or "down" for a lot of reasons, and most of the time the person isn't depressed in the disorder sense. I think that's why so many people expect a person with clinical depression to be able to just snap out of it.

  2. I hope you get a lot of traffic through your site that take the time to read this important post. Well done. Many, many teen suffer with depression and adults dismiss it as normal teen angst. I think adults often tell kids that high school years are the best years of their lives. Imagine what one thinks if they are experiencing depression and they hear that?

    My Head is Full of Books

  3. I hate the stigma that Depression is something that can be "gotten over" as well. I love that there are books out there that talk about this subject openly. I think you are right, the more it is talked about, the less misconceptions people will believe. I think it is a great thing for a teenager to read something that could possibly let them know that they are not alone. If they do not have the issues that are displayed in a book, perhaps it will make them realize that a friend could be going through it and they could talk to them about it. Great post Ashley! There are a few up there that I have not read so I will have to add them to my wish list!

  4. 'Saving Francesca' was a pretty powerful book, I thought. It showed how depression can effect a person and those around them, and how just ignoring depression doesn't help any.

    It's strange how things like depression and mental illness are viewed. They're "taboo" or something, which is so wrong, because you can't help it.

    Thanks for this post. =)

  5. This post is fantastic, Ash. And so true. You really made me stop and think more. You sound so smart. My baby girl! *sniffles*

    Haha, I like the cover for Saving Francesca ^.~

  6. Excellent points. I am currently reading Impulse by Ellen Hopkins and one of the characters has depression as did her mother - its a powerful read.

  7. I agree with you that depression is not something you just 'get over', but it is generally viewed that way. However, cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in treating it, so it's no like you just have to wait around and take medication for it to go away (like with your broken leg, lol). The only thing: getting people who are depressed motivated is... well, hard.
    I agree it's good that it gets more coverage in YA lit, because as a teen you really don't know all that much about it normally.
    Great post!

  8. Daisy-Are you chastising the very people that are ill b/c that aren't motivated. Cognitive behavioral therapy doesn't work if the patient can't get out of bed, so there has to be medicine. And even then cognitive behavioral therapy doesn't always work. A mind is as individual as the person and the therapy has to be as well. Making a person feel worse b/c they can't get it together to see the therapist doesn't do anyone good.

    Ashley- Sorry, excellent post on depression. I already commented on your OCD post we emailed about Bipolar Disorder and it's ugly portrayal in YA. You are so right that depression can be hidden from people. I did it for years. No one knew how low I had become because I still held a smile on my face. Mine started in fourth grade and I didn't know how or what to say. So I just kept smiling on the outside and buried my feelings. I knew I wasn't right, but you can tell if someone really wants to know if you're okay or if they're just making polite chit chat- it took meeting my husband for me to find someone that really wanted to know if I was okay. I was 27. And I'd put myself through hell.

    So, what do you do? Really mean it if you ask someone if they are doing okay. Then SHUT UP and LISTEN. To what they say and don't say.



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