By Karis Rogerson
When I read Emery Lord’s When We Collided in February 2017, I found myself, for the first time, truly understanding what it meant to see your mental illness represented in fiction. Since then, I’ve found a similar mirror in books like Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram; the Shadow Players series by Heidi Heilig; and Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Harley in the Sky.
For years, I had been writing my own mental illness onto the page, both through personal essays that were published online and in the fictional books I one day hope to publish. I have bipolar II, anxiety, and chronic depression, and I had learned that sharing my story could help others.
In the United States alone, according to NAMI, one in six youths between the ages of 6-17 live with mental illness; and half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14. In other words, teenagers are at high risk for mental illness in the US, and more importantly, a huge portion of people who will ever experience a mental illness are doing so for the first time as teenagers. In the midst of puberty, hormones, high school stress, and all the rest of the very real drama that adolescence brings, so many teens are coping with mental illness.
Yet despite these high numbers, there is still a lot of misunderstanding swirling around mental illness. Stories representing mental illness of all kinds aimed for children and young adults can do the important work of providing a mirror for those living through the thick of it, showing them they’re not alone; as well as clearing up misconceptions and showing the humanity behind the diagnosis.
Jen Wilde is the author of “unapologetically queer stories about geeks, rockstars, and fangirls who smash the patriarchy in their own unique ways,” according to her website. Wilde said she’s writing the stories she needed to read as a teen, explaining she was unaware of what a panic attack was or that she lived with anxiety.
And despite the rise in awareness, she told We Need Diverse Books, “the stigma around mental illness is still very prevalent in society. The more we talk about it, the more we share the vulnerable parts of ourselves with each other, the less power it has over our lives.”
Wilde’s book Queens of Geek features Taylor, an autistic, anxious character, and Wilde said she was initially afraid to write her own anxiety onto the page.
“But it turns out that Taylor is the character I get the most messages about,” Wilde said. “So many readers have told me they see themselves in her and finally feel like their anxiety is being acknowledged.”
Akemi Dawn Bowman, whose three published YA novels deal with various aspects of mental health, said writing YA was not really a conscious choice, and that writing about mental illness came naturally.
“I wasn’t diagnosed when I was a teenager, I didn’t go to therapy until I was in my early 20s,” she told WNDB. “I remember what that felt like—you’re still living with it, going through it, you don’t have the label but it doesn’t mean you’re not still struggling. What you’re going through is what matters, not what somebody wrote on a piece of paper.”
Victoria Schwab, the fantasy author of middle grade, young adult, and adult novels, shared that she pours aspects of her own self into each of her characters—for example, the main characters in her YA Monsters of Verity series, Kate and August, are manifestations of her own OCD and anxiety.
“Most of my writing is me trying to both confront and comfort some version of myself who feels those things, validating them by acknowledging them and then providing a way to think about them that frightens me a little bit less,” Schwab said, adding that as a child she experienced a morbidity fear, consumed with thoughts of death. “That’s why I wrote the City of Ghosts books—I wanted to write books that talked about the idea of death but in a way that would have comforted me when I was a kid, which is this idea that death is not a one-way street.”
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the author of 17 books for children, with her 18th, Fighting Words, set for an August publication. One of her novels is The War that Saved My Life, the story of two children forced to evacuate London during World War II.
“Anyone that had space in their house could be forced to take a child, and this opened up a lot of room for people to harm kids and just to be nasty to them,” Bradley said of her inspiration for writing the story of Ada. “For most of these kids, it was a hugely traumatic thing, and I thought, well, what if it was the opposite for one child, what if it was the best thing that could have happened to her.”
Bradley added that she cares about accurately portraying trauma in books, saying, “People want it to be like ‘oh their lives are better so they’re happy.’ I don’t really understand why people think that should be true.” Her goal is to tell the truth about all sorts of things, and not to hide the facts from children. “We need to be able to talk about these issues so kids can say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this, how can I get help?’”
All of the authors mentioned above, who spoke about their passion for writing stories of mental illness and trauma in an honest fashion for children, have also shared about their own diagnoses.
Wilde said that she was diagnosed as autistic at 26 and has always lived with anxiety. “It’s taken a lot of trial and error over the years to learn how to manage my anxiety, and to be honest I’ll probably keep learning for the rest of my life,” she said.
Meanwhile, Schwab said, “I struggle with anxiety and depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I definitely think it’s something that you learn to live with, I don’t think it’s something that you fight or conquer, or anything like that, but I think there’s a lot of ways you have to do a lot of self-examination. I try to never see it as an excuse but I also try to never minimize the difficulties of it.”
Bowman has been diagnosed with social anxiety, depression, and OCD.
And Bradley shared she has trauma in her background, and that for a long time her official diagnosis included PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
“My hope is that if more people go public with their struggles it’ll be less something people think they have to be ashamed of,” Bradley said.
Heidi Heilig is another author of young adult novels that heavily feature mental illness, who says she was diagnosed as bipolar almost 20 years ago. Her relationship with medication and doctors is, she says, “fraught,” but she added, “Over the years of living with the illness, though, I have developed strategies that help, including the knowledge that if things seem impossible, one thing about bipolar is that my mood will always eventually change.”
In addition to the difficulties that come with trying to manage daily life with a mental illness or two, there are challenges specific to being an author as well.
“Any author ends up wearing a lot of hats,” Heilig said. “Of course, one of the things I need as a person with mental illness is consistency, because the lack of it usually sends me on a swing. I can actually look at my career so far and see my steady mental deterioration over the years. I have plans to get back on track but I’m not going to lie, it’s hard.”
Schwab spoke to the public nature of being an author, explaining, “[Being an author is] very public, and there’s a lot of criticism and critique and feedback. It’s very easy to forget that authors are people, especially in a social media era, that we see everything. As most creatives will know, you can read 99 wonderful things, but the thing that stays with you is the one negative thing, always, and if you struggle you have to know your thresholds.”
Speaking of thresholds, Schwab shared that she has learned her anxiety gives her about a three-hour window for public events before she needs to pull back to take care of herself.
“I had to learn to be really open and honest [with people]—I basically will turn into a pumpkin at midnight,” she said. “I am an extremely anxious person who has found a way to cope. The stress that anxiety puts on my body while I’m doing an event…edges up until if I have an event go too long, I will feel sick.”
The public eyes can be amplified if authors have any form of mental illness, as Bowman shared how hard it could be. “It can be stifling being out in the open,” she said. “Things that I’m always constantly worried I’m gonna get it wrong, someone’s gonna yell at me. I wasn’t mentally prepared for how that would feel.”
One of the steps Schwab takes to take care of herself is keeping a daily habit tracker, which she has shared about on her social media. It involves setting goals and, importantly, forgiving herself for not meeting them every day.
“I specifically recommend it to creatives who get easily overwhelmed and who punish themselves,” Schwab said. “I am such a pattern-based individual, it’s truly the only way I’ve found to stop punishing myself.”
Wilde also shared that book promotion can lead to the greatest anxiety for her. “As much as I love interacting with readers, in-person events cause me a great deal of anxiety and can lead to overload or burn-out for me,” Wilde said. “I’ll probably always have some serious FOMO and guilt about not doing many events.”
That’s not to say that Wilde never does events; she takes care to schedule self-care time afterward. In 2018, she said, she was on a panel at San Diego Comic Con, but felt drained by anxiety and had a chronic pain flare-up for about a month.
“If I do decide to do an event, I have to schedule recovery time for the days or weeks after,” she said.
Heilig takes care of herself with one big tool: routine. Of course it’s not always possible to have a routine (like when she’s on tour), so she compensates by eating regularly, exercising, and seeing the sun. “Sometimes it’s just about getting through a time of upheaval until I can get back into a routine,” she added.
Self-care can also be a struggle, on top of all the other struggles of being an author with a mental illness. Bowman said, “I still find it an ongoing struggle,” but added that a few things she has done include heavily vetting reviews (“the critique can be triggering,” she shared), cutting back on social media, and taking a lot of time-outs—kind of giving her brain a chance to shut down and reset.
For Bradley, one aspect of self-care involves knowing how much of her private life she is willing to share. When writing stories that touch on trauma that is personal, the questions people, and especially children, might ask at events could be triggering.
“One thing is that I do try to figure out where the questions are gonna go and how I’m gonna answer them, ahead of time,” she said. “Just sort of to have answers ready for most things that kids will ask. I already know for Fighting Words, I will say that I was sexually abused but I’m not going to discuss the details, and that’s just kind of my ground rule right there.”
In addition, Bradley said, “Naps and coffee and not too much wine. The last time I was on book tour I discovered why people invented room service.”
Bradley encouraged taking downtime wherever and whenever possible, especially when touring and discussing heavy material.
“I think that it’s very important to write about the things, but to do it from a place of safety, which you get to by being able to get past your own trauma to a certain degree,” Bradley said of her advice to aspiring mentally ill writers seeking to write their own experiences. “Not to say it goes away, but to come to a place where you’re not consistently so upset, because otherwise what you’re writing is just going to send you into a bad place.
Meanwhile, Schwab highly recommended using a habit tracker, saying “Developing strong habits for self-care and balance and for recentering your narrative around things you do control. The sooner you develop those positive habits, the better they’ll be under the stress test.”
Heilig encourages aspiring authors with disabilities of any kind to really get to know their own way of working and do whatever it takes to make that easier—for herself, with the need for structure, she automates as much as she can: “Even something as simple as saying ‘I will have oatmeal for breakfast for the next month,’ or having Monday through Friday outfits picked out ahead of time—can help. Because it takes away the stress of making those choices, leaving your brain free to worry about other stuff, which it probably will be doing constantly.”
And Wilde’s advice was simply to do the hard work of truth-telling.
“Don’t be afraid to pour your heart into your writing,” she said. “It’s scary, but when you send it out into the world and get even one ‘me too’ in response, oh boy, is it worth it.”
Karis Rogerson is an American, Canadian, pseudo-Italian who loudly (but only sometimes fluently) speaks 2.5 languages and is proud to be of the auburn-haired club. As a reader and writer, her childhood heroes included Anne of Green Gables and Jo March (classic), and these days she admires authors like Angie Thomas, Sandhya Menon, and Heidi Heilig, who are changing the world one brilliant story at a time. Find more of her writing on her website, and follow her on Twitter or Instagram for writing updates and pictures of Italy and New York City.