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I’m 21, and I’m not ashamed to say that I still read YA.
It’s just something about the wide-eyed optimism of finding “the one” in high school or the triumphant stories of overcoming hallway bullies that still resonate with me. Reading YA allows me to not think about the crippling student loan debt or the looming apprehension that comes with graduating college this year. Instead, I dive into the (somehow) eventful life of a teenager and hope that one day my daughter will find a man like Augustus Waters. No exceptions.
While The Fault in Our Stars is probably my most favorite novel of all time, it is important to note John Green’s less sugar-coated novel, Turtles All The Way Down. I picked up this book last winter, just before I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I was still unclear on what having an anxiety disorder was like, let alone any other mental illnesses. But it was Turtles All The Way Down that opened my eyes and put me in the shoes of someone with OCD. It erased the misconceptions often associated with OCD like, excessive hand-washing and checking locks more than once before leaving the house. It was so much more than that. The main character Aza often picks at her skin, something that I often do in times of stress. She often finds herself falling into “thought spirals,” a jumble of put-downs and fear of what’s to come.
Often in the novel, Aza dissociates and describes what it’s like to feel as if you’re living life outside of yourself. This was the first time I’d ever read about dissociating that wasn’t from a psychology journal in class. This comforted me. I saw a lot of myself in Aza. It is because of Turtles, that I wasn’t afraid to face my mental health, and I wasn’t embarrassed to talk about it. Though, it wasn’t until after I read his book did I learn that John Green was writing from his own experience while penning Turtles, as he also struggles to cope with OCD and anxiety. This wasn’t fiction for Green, rather he personified his mental health in the form of a high school girl. And for me, that was relatable.
I was fifteen when I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Like the main character Charlie, I’d just started high school. I was shy, only had a few friends, and looked up to the seniors, as they were my idols. From the first page of Perks, I was hooked. I remember being fully engrossed into Charlie’s story so much that I read it on a spring break vacation in Costa Rica. Years later, I would go back and hi-light quotes that just felt too real such as, “Things change and friends leave. And life doesn't stop for anybody,” or “You can't just sit there and put everybody's lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.” It is clear to see that Charlie was not the strongest character. He didn’t speak much. He was sort of submissive, but that was because he was afraid. He battled with his mental health, often referring to his struggles as “getting bad.”
While the book was unclear as to what exactly Charlie was going through, the film dropped a few hints here and there. Nonetheless, The Perks of Being a Wallflower spoke the words I couldn’t—the words about feeling alone, the words about feeling misunderstood. Or not being able to speak for yourself. Or wanting to fit in, and doing things you shouldn’t in order to fit in. Conforming to society’s definition of an American teen and succumbing to the pressures of having a relationship, but not having your heart fully in it. I’ve been out of high school for almost four years now, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book/movie I always revisit. It is because I felt whole when I read this, and proved to me that recovery is possible.
All The Bright Places was a beautifully haunting novel about not wanting to be found. The main characters, Violet and Finch were the complete opposite of each other, yet discovered they were more of a perfect match as the novel progressed. Both characters experienced anxiety and depression, yet coped with them in different ways. Violet was coping with the loss of her sister, while Finch was coping with the loss of himself. I think this is the first book I ever cried over--even more than The Fault in Our Stars. Reason being, Finch committed suicide.
All The Bright Places wasn’t a book filled with warm fuzzies, that’s for sure. If anything, it made my heart race. I finished the book at five o’clock in the morning and felt drained as I read the last page. I’d invested so much of myself into these characters, and all I wanted for them was a happy ending. But All The Bright Places showed me that happy endings aren’t always possible. Healing, for those who struggle with their mental health, seems like a dark and impossible road. It also expressed that suicide is often abrupt. As I currently try to tread through the waters of the recent suicide of a friend, I am reminded of this book. It was truly a masterpiece where Finch really did live his life to the end, going on adventures and falling love with a girl. All The Bright Places was the only novel I ever got closure from.
These three YA novels are just some of many that discuss mental health. I think putting mental health into the perspective of fictional characters is easier to grasp than statistics or news reports. It’s also more accessible to middle and high school kids (and maybe college students, like myself). Realistic stories being told about mental health and suicide in the form of relatable fictional characters is more effective than any documentary. It doesn’t cause the reader to confront the hard-hitting numbers about yearly suicides in America, but rather causes the reader to become introspective and find clarity in similar situations the characters experience.
So the next time you see a girl reading John Green, don’t assume it’s a sappy novel about two teens and some stars.