How Young Adult Fiction Helps Teens Better Understand Their Mental Health
I was a teen who sometimes felt too panicked to function. Parties felt like minefields, my future seemed fragile, and the ways I could fail on a daily basis numbered near infinite.
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This is what my anxiety looked like; a powerful yet invisible force that shaped my days and weighed heavily on my mind. At the time, I couldn’t quite put words to these dark feelings, but I could recognize them in the pages of the books I was drawn to read. Books like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even if the trauma was not my own, I found solace in the painfully honest perspective of a character who struggled with his mental health. I saw hope in the acceptance Charlie slowly but eventually finds for himself and from his friends. And, in a time before hashtags and social media campaigns, I felt a sense of comfort knowing that other readers might be responding in the same way I did.
Flash forward to today and the path between that transformative moment with young adult fiction and my career as a teen librarian is easy to trace. What better way to help young readers discover themselves through books than by putting the titles in their hands? What better way to help foster an accepting community than by creating spaces where teens could freely be themselves?
And these goals are both central to the work that today’s teen librarians do. That’s why every youth services class in library school ties in adolescent development along with the assets teens need to thrive as students, citizens, and people. Do we also learn how to make wallets out of duct tape and add mustaches to book covers? You betcha. But underlying it all, every program and display and act of service, is our shared mission to affirm and empower teens. And that includes the nearly 1 in 5 young people between the ages of 13 and 18 who will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives, according to a recent study.
So, how does that translate into the daily duties of a librarian? Through simple acts of empathy like checking in after school, sitting down to listen, and generally being there. Sometimes we’ll design pathways to credible sources that don’t require a conversation. For instance, many libraries will simply put out resource guides to free or low-cost support in their teen areas, and a growing number are sharing call number keys for sensitive subjects that will allow teens and grown ups interested in supporting teens to navigate non-fiction sections independently.
Or, if you know a teen like me, who might benefit from books that put their feelings or experiences into context, we’re happy to help with that too. Requests can be made for super specific situations like living with a parent struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson) or a topic as broad as grief or eating issues. You can tell us that the book has a personal connection, or keep your reasons completely to yourself. In some cases, you may want us to be conscious of the triggers teens don’t want to encounter in the stories they read. I once helped a parent find a book “where nothing bad happened” for a tween dealing with anxiety. Whatever the criteria, we’re there to guide you to what you’re looking for without judgment.
And fortunately for us and the communities we serve, we have a wealth of quality options in terms of representation. Both in terms of the kinds of challenges teens are facing (you can find many librarian-generated booklists that cover a wide range of mental health topics) as well as the backgrounds of the teens themselves. Writers like Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion), Erika L. Sánchez (I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter), and Adam Silvera (More Happy than Not) among others are shining a light on the ways people of color are affected by mental health struggles as well as their options for coping. As a result, librarians are better able to support diversity in their collections and more readers are able to see themselves reflected both inside and out through these books.
While not a replacement for traditional therapy, stories like these can start conversations, provide comfort, and be the first step to feeling a little less isolated. Teen librarians, similarly, while not social workers or psychologists, can welcome teens with an open mind, a compassionate heart, and a space outside of home or school to better understand themselves.