YA Novels with Themes of Mental Health

Books have always been an important way to make sense of the world. In particular, when I was feeling in ways that I didn’t understand or know how to deal with, young adult (YA) novels were especially meaningful for me. As a content warning, many of these books deal intimately with difficult and potentially triggering themes, like suicide, self-harm, death, trauma, and grief. For me, it meant a lot to see aspects of my own experience– especially some of the hardest ones– explicitly reflected in the books I read. With that being said, here are a few YA novels that were important to me in how they helped me feel, think, and understand the world differently:

  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini. Craig is a 9th grader at a high-pressure school in New York who is struggling with disordered eating, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. He seeks emergency help and is admitted to a psychiatric treatment center, where he meets people of many ages and backgrounds as he recovers. It’s sad and funny at all the right moments, and ends with profound hope. I really love this book and have read it probably five or six times since I was in middle school.
  • We Are Okay, Nina LaCour. Marin is a college student who recently lost her grandfather, by whom she was raised since her mother’s death. She experiences many feelings of intense grief, confusion, and isolation. With the support of her close friend Mabel, she processes these emotions and begins to heal. It’s emotional and beautifully written; if you like character-driven (rather than plot-driven) books, you’ll love this one!
  • I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson. This book switches between the points of view of twins Noah and Jude, at different points in their lives. If you like time and perspective-hopping, this one’s for you! Both of them fall in love, navigate friendships, and explore different mediums of art. At its core, this book is about familial love and relationships, and processing shared grief and trauma in different ways. It’s a beautifully emotional and moving story.
  • The Upside of Unrequited, Becky Albertalli. This is a teen romance novel, and a spin-off of Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (but you do not need to have read that to read this book). The main character, Molly, is a “serial crusher” who maneuvers changes in her and her twin sister’s life. She has anxiety and is on medication for it, which isn’t written as the focus of the novel, but is accepted as part of her life. Read if you’re interested in a sweet romance in which a character’s anxiety is relevant, but not central, to the plot.
  • Turtles All The Way Down, John Green. The author’s own experience with OCD is reflected in Aza, the main character. She accompanies her friend on a search for a missing billionaire for a $100,000 reward. Underlying the plot is Aza’s lived experience with intrusive thoughts and compulsions. The story is honest and well-written, it’s easy to empathize with Aza.

Reading books, and especially young adult literature, is one of the best ways to help us understand our individual experiences. I hope at least one of these books interests you! In addition, I take a lot of joy in sharing these books with my friend. Setting up an informal book club with peers could be a great way to get deeper in these books. More than anything, I encourage you to spend time looking for books that talk about experiences you or your friends have had. YA authors are some of the most empathetic writers, and I mean it when I say some of these books permanently changed my perspective for the better.

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