Sunday, June 8, 2014

Raise your hand if you were a "messed up" teen

I know I was. Not a day went by that I wasn't freaking out about something. Meanwhile, the world seemed to turn on in its effortless perfection, leading me to feel like the lone loose screw in an otherwise well-oiled machine.

Looking back, that seems like a ridiculous thing to think. We're all imperfect creatures fumbling through a chaotic world, doing our best to make sense of it all and plastering on confident faces to hide our insecurities. But yet when you're caught in the snare of mental illness, such words seldom make you feel better. You worry that if you seek help, you'll be slapped with the "crazy" label and stigmatized for life. You wonder if you really need it, or if you'll just get over it if you just toughen up. And you feel alone, so alone.

Yet according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 11% of teens have a depressive disorder by age 18. Meanwhile, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 86% of students surveyed reported the onset of an eating disorder by age 20. And about 2 million American teens, which is 3-5% of the teen population, suffer from ADD or ADHD. I'm sure I could find more statistics out there showing that mental health issues are far more prevalent than one might believe from looking at all the confident attitudes projected to the world. 

One of the most important things to realize about mental illness is that it is an illness. A cancer in your mind, eating away at your joy. A fever in your head, burning away at your reason. And you might as well be bleeding, bleeding, bleeding, because that's what it feels like. Except the worst part is, you've no visible wound to prove that there's something wrong - even to yourself.

And so the well-intentioned but misinformed tell you to "be strong" and "get past it," and then question your choice to take meds because they might alter who you are. Which is why we need to constantly remind the world of what mental illness really is. And slowly but surely, things are changing.

Meanwhile, in the book world, issues of mental health have long been used to add drama and interest to young adult novels. It's a tricky area to navigate, because on the one hand, it does help raise awareness about depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other illnesses when they're depicted from the point of view of a sympathetic character. On the other hand, authors have to be careful not to sensationalize the matter.

I've yet to tackle these sticky issues face-on in my own books, although I do have one character who suffered from depression and anxiety as a teen and PTSD as an adult (those of you who've read my books can probably guess which one). It wasn't easy, because even though these were important elements to his personality, I didn't want them to define him. Because ultimately, they're not who he is - they're what's holding him back. Especially since he operates under the mistaken belief that this is just who he is, and he just has to deal with it.

We've come a long day from the days when the mentally ill were thrown into snake pits in hopes of shocking them back to sanity. But we've still got a ways to go. And aside from the research and invention of new therapies and medicines, we also have to make sure that people know what mental illnesses really are: actual diseases, not just bad attitudes or bad choices.

Because no one suffering from mental illness should feel like it's their fault. Or that they're alone.

Part of the Mental Health Awareness Month blog hop


  1. "Because no one suffering from mental illness should feel like it's their fault. Or that they're alone."

    Absolutely, I couldn't agree more! Seems like our society still has this deep-rooted stigma about mental illness, envisioning it as completely different from, say, diabetes or a broken arm. It's sad, though I do think things have improved significantly, as you said.

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